Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Stay of execution?

The tide is turning over the death penalty, says Sharon Smith

At the end of January an Illinois court declared death row inmate Steve Manning innocent of the crime for which he had spent the last 13 years on death row. Manning is the 13th Illinois death row prisoner whose conviction has been overturned in 13 years. Less than a week later Illinois Governor George Ryan declared the system 'fraught with error' and announced a moratorium on the death penalty in the state of Illinois. Ryan's formal statement said, 'Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.' Ryan's decision has set off a chain reaction that has created a national debate over the death penalty, and the possibility for ending it.

Governor Ryan is not a crusader for social justice, but a Republican machine politician and vocal supporter of the death penalty. He has recently been caught in a massive corruption scandal (drivers' licences for sale) and has been desperately searching for ways to redeem himself. The fact that the death penalty is one of the issues he has chosen as his vehicle to do so speaks volumes for the sea change in popular opinion on this and a host of other social issues over the course of the last year.

Opinion polls have shown for a number of years that support for the death penalty is eroding. Roughly three quarters of the population approves of capital punishment, but when pollsters give respondents a choice between imposing the death penalty and life in prison, only a minority support the death penalty. When the possibility of wrongful execution is raised, a majority of those polled over the last several years consistently express concern that the death penalty may wrongly punish innocent people. A year ago, when the Illinois courts released Anthony Porter--whose execution was stayed just 36 hours before he was to be put to death--support for a moratorium on the death penalty rose to 70 percent in Chicago. Since 1973, 85 people have been released from death row after proving their innocence. Together they spent a combined total of 630 years on death row, waiting to die.

But even in cases in which a death row prisoner is known to be guilty, growing numbers have questioned the fairness of state-sanctioned murder. In 1998 death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker begged to have her sentence changed to life in prison as her execution date approached. Television cameras rolled as she was led to the death chamber after Governor George W Bush refused to stay her execution. The day after she was put to death, support for the death penalty fell by 20 percent in Texas.

There is also a growing cynicism--if not outright hostility--towards the entire police and prison system, which has used the 'war on drugs' to triple the US prison population since 1980. The US now incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world, its overcrowded prisons swollen with young blacks and Latinos serving time for non-violent drug offences. Some economists estimate that the national unemployment rate would rise by a full percentage point if not for the massive prison population.

Despite the fact that the rate of violent crime has dropped steadily for the last six years, politicians have continued frothing at the mouth for higher sentencing laws and quicker executions. More than 600 executions have been carried out in the US since 1977. Last year alone 98 inmates were put to death, the highest number since the 1940s. All of the major presidential candidates in this year's campaign are avowed supporters of the death penalty. Bill Clinton himself proposed the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which made it far more difficult for death row inmates to appeal against their convictions. And the self proclaimed 'compassionate conservative,' George W Bush, has granted clemency just once as governor. Bush oversees one in every six executions carried out in the US. Brad Thomas, Florida's death penalty advisor to Governor Jeb Bush (brother of George W) argued recently, 'What I hope is that we become more like Texas. Bring in the witnesses, put them on a gurney, and let's rock and roll.'

But suddenly the tide is turning. Within days after Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, moratorium calls echoed across the country. While Clinton has turned down a moratorium on the federal death penalty, by mid-February moratorium legislation was pending in 12 states. In Georgia civil rights and labour leaders joined with death penalty abolitionists to call for a state-wide moratorium. After they were thrown out of the State House, they held a press conference on the State House steps.

The Philadelphia City Council voted by a margin of 12 to four to urge the Pennsylvania state legislature to pass a moratorium there--which would delay the execution of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Five senators joined together to call on the US Senate to hold judiciary hearings on innocence and the death penalty. Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, with two former death row inmates at his side, proposed a law making it easier for death row inmates to prove their innocence. Jesse Jackson Jr has called for a seven year moratorium on all executions in the US. Even the US Justice Department has announced it plans to review federal death penalty cases for racial bias.

The tide is turning partly because Democrats have their fingers to the wind during this election year. But something much more fundamental has changed. The horrors of the death penalty and the injustices of the prison system as a whole have been exposed--in large part thanks to the system's most virulent supporters. But credit also goes to those who have actively opposed the death penalty, who have fought long and hard to help prove the innocence of some inmates and to spotlight the horrors of the US killing machine. Some are death row inmates themselves, like the Illinois Death Row Ten--prisoners whose confessions were tortured from them under the orders of former Chicago police commander Jon Burge.

Others are small organisations such as the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which has campaigned nationally on behalf of the Death Row Ten and other inmates. In this context, even a small organisation can suddenly find itself having a national impact--which is why Time magazine last month directed its on-line readers to the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, as 'the leading group against capital punishment'. Just over a month ago the idea of ending the death penalty seemed off in the distant future. Suddenly it has become a real possibility.

Growing numbers question the fairness of state-sanctioned murder

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