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U.S. hits 1,000th execution "milestone" since 1976
Barbarism of the system

December 9, 2005 | Page 7

ALAN MAASS reports on the criminal injustice system's terrible new achievement--the 1,000th execution since the reinstatement of capital punishment.

"IT'S A milestone we should all be ashamed of." Those were the words of a lawyer for the North Carolina man who--as of 2:15 a.m. on December 2--became the 1,000th person executed in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

SOURCE: Death Penalty Information Center

The execution of Kenneth Boyd in North Carolina--and Shawn Humphries in South Carolina just a few hours later--brought attention to this grotesque face of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The U.S. is alone in the advanced world in using the death penalty. Amnesty International said that executions were carried out in 25 countries last year, but almost all--97 percent, to be precise--took place in just four countries: China, Iran, Vietnam and the U.S.

Even the mainstream media have been forced investigate the system's flaws. The most widely reported injustice is how often terrible errors are made.

For every eight people executed since the reinstatement of the death penalty, one prisoner has been exonerated and freed--a shockingly high error rate with life and death at stake. Many of the exonerated spent years on death row--some as long as two decades--with the prospect of being executed for a crime they didn't commit hanging over them.

What's more, a recent Houston Chronicle investigation has uncovered what is almost certainly another case of the ultimate nightmare--an innocent person put to death. According to the Chronicle, Ruben Cantu, a former special education student who was executed in Texas in 1993, was probably not even present at the scene of the murder-robbery in San Antonio that sent him to death row.

Cantu's co-defendant, David Garza, who was just 15 at the time of the crime, has signed a sworn affidavit stating that he allowed Cantu, 17 at the time, to be falsely accused. And the lone eyewitness, who barely survived the shooting, now says that, as an undocumented immigrant at the time, he felt pressured by police to identify Cantu, even though he's sure Cantu didn't commit the crime.

The grim truth is that Cantu is surely not the only innocent person put to death since 1976--not by a long shot. Texas alone is notorious--for court-assigned lawyers who slept through trials, for fanatical prosecutors using death penalty cases as a stepping-stone to higher office, for scandalous incompetence in crime labs handling murder trial evidence.

But for each of these individual outrages, there is a systematic pattern of injustice built into the capital punishment system.

One of the most obvious is race. African Americans account for 41.7 percent of death row prisoners today--more than three times their numbers in the U.S. population as a whole. The race of the victim is even more important in determining who gets the death penalty--defendants accused of murdering whites are more likely to face a capital murder charge. Given this, it's no surprise that two-thirds of executions since 1976 have taken place in the states of the former Confederacy.

If race is one critical factor in the death penalty system, the other is class. The ultimate punishment is reserved almost exclusively for the poorest of the poor. Defendants with the financial resources to hire a decent lawyer with experience in capital cases almost never get the death penalty.

As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg admitted, "I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial."

Opinion polls show that support for capital punishment has dropped sharply in the last decade. Some two-thirds of Americans still support the death penalty, according to a Gallup poll conducted in October, but that figure falls to just half when alternatives such as life without the possibility of parole is offered--and further still when information about the system's flaws is discussed.

In the mid-1990s, the death penalty was the leading edge of the politicians' law-and order hysteria. Eager to show their tough-on-crime credentials, lawmakers of both parties demanded expansion of the death penalty--and strict new limits on death row appeals that continue to make it difficult for prisoners to challenge mistakes in their trials or even raise new evidence.

But capital punishment is no longer the hot-button issue that politicians once exploited. As Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center put it to the Washington Post, "It's not quite the ticket to the statehouse if you promise to execute more and more and speed it up."

Thus, in Virginia, second only to Texas in executions since 1976, Gov. Mark Warner last month commuted the death sentence of a man whose scheduled execution would have made him the 1,000th person put to death--because the state had thrown out crucial evidence in the case. As a result, Virginia will finish 2005 without a single execution taking place--for the first time in 22 years.

Less than three years ago, in January 2003, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, made history when he commuted 167 death sentences, clearing death row. And this year, New York lawmakers blocked a proposal to reintroduce the death penalty after a court declared its old statue invalid.

This shift is due in large part to the success of opponents of the death penalty in exposing the flaws of the system.

The result has been a growing concern about the legitimacy of the execution machine, which runs to the very top. "If statistics are any indication," former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee to the high court, said in a July 2001 speech, "the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed." "Perhaps it's time to look at minimum standards for appointed counsel in death cases and adequate compensation for appointed counsel when they are used," O'Connor said.

In the past several years, O'Connor and her fellow justices decreed bans on executing the mentally retarded and prisoners who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes. Connected to this is the steady decline in juries imposing death sentences, now at the lowest level in three decades. In the mid-1990s, juries sentenced an average of 290 people to death ever year; last year, the number was 125.

Today, Stan Tookie Williams' case is adding to the growing questioning of--and outright opposition to--the death penalty. Anyone who cares about challenging racism and injustice in U.S. society needs to join the struggle to save Tookie--and to oppose barbaric sick death penalty system as a whole.

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