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Stopping America's execution machine

January 20, 2006 | Page 5

ERIC RUDER looks at the state of the struggle against the death penalty today.

THIRTY YEARS ago this year, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in the U.S.

Its ruling allowed executions again if states implemented laws that were supposed to insure that racial bias didn't plague the process by which defendants were sentenced to death--the reason the Court had banned executions in the first place in 1972. Within a few years, many states, especially in the South, had begun filling their death rows with prisoners.

The resurgence of capital punishment coincided with the rollback of other gains won by the civil rights and other social movements of the 1960s and '70s.

Thirty Years Is Enough!

The Campaign to End the Death Penalty has called for a national week of action under the slogan "Thirty Years Is Enough: End the Death Penalty!" The week of anti-death penalty events will take place during the Campaign's annual Death Penalty Awareness Week, scheduled for February 27 to March 3. For more information, visit the CEDP Web site.

As the decade wore on, public support for the death penalty grew, and law-and-order measures pursued by both Republicans and Democrats displaced the conventional wisdom of the civil rights generation that addressing the problem of violence required addressing the roots of violence. Instead, the politicians repeated their new slogan of "personal responsibility"--and promoted the death penalty as the means to deal with "the worst of the worst."

In the mid to late 1990s, however, a new trend emerged. After two decades of seemingly overwhelming support for the death penalty, skepticism began to appear.

In Texas, under then-Gov. George W. Bush, the state's death machine executed far more prisoners annually than any other state. But it was also producing revulsion at the assembly-line pace of state-sponsored killing.

A widespread campaign to defend Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther on Pennsylvania's death row, emerged. From 1995 to 1999, 27 people were released from death row--nine in Illinois alone--after evidence of their innocence came to light.

As the reality sank in that innocent people are regularly sentenced to death, public support for the death penalty began falling. From a 1994 high of 80 percent, opinion polls showed the number of people supporting the death penalty falling to 66 percent in 2000 and 64 percent last year--matching the lowest level in the last 27 years.

In 2000, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan announced a moratorium on executions. A few years later, as he was about to leave office, Ryan commuted the sentences of every prisoner on the state's death row.

Maryland was the next state to implement a moratorium, and though that ban on executions ended in 2003, as Socialist Worker went to press, the governor of New Jersey signed a new moratorium law. Other states are now weighing moratoriums or abolition (New Mexico, Kansas and California) or have commissioned studies of the death penalty system (California and North Carolina).

The U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of the mentally retarded in 2002 and of juvenile offenders in 2005.

But an even more important development is the shrinking number of death sentences imposed across the U.S., says Stephen Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a well-known capital defense attorney.

"For 2004, only 125 death sentences were imposed, fewer than the two years before, when the number each year was less than 150," Bright said in an interview. "In the late '90s, about 300 people were sentenced to death each year. Also, fewer people are on death rows each year, even though there has been a decline in the number of executions."

The December 13 execution of Stanley Tookie Williams in California was a blow to anti-death penalty activists. But it also showed that large numbers of people are ready to fight capital punishment.

"Stan's life was lost--or taken, because lost is too benign a description," Barbara Becnel, a journalist and Stan's collaborator, told Socialist Worker. "But because there was so much focus, and because of his history and what he had accomplished, it allowed people to focus on the value of humanity and the horror of state-sponsored murder and the role it plays in devaluing humanity

"So we've seen something positive come out of this. The world has recoiled because of what the state of California and Arnold Schwarzenegger did to Stanley Tookie Williams.
And it has contributed to some members of our state legislature having the courage to move forward with a bill to impose a moratorium on executions in California."

With 645 prisoners, California has by far the largest death row in the U.S. Many prisoners are nearing the end of the appeals process, and the state could very well step up executions in 2006.

"We're definitely approaching the Texas model," said Becnel. "We just had an execution a month ago. And I'll be back at San Quentin on Monday night [January 16], unless the Supreme Court intervenes, to protest the execution of Clarence Ray Allen. And then Michael Morales will be either next month or March."

Yet public opinion in the state has swung sharply--from 83 percent in favor of the death penalty to 57 percent last year. That majority drops to a minority--38 percent--when life without parole is a sentencing option.

California has released three death row prisoners who were wrongfully convicted. And like practically every other state, death row in California is disproportionately made up of Blacks and Latinos. "It's a very odd time for us," said Lance Lindsey, executive director of Death Penalty Focus. "It will be very bipolar, because we have this momentum with the commission and public support in the polls for the death penalty falling, and then we have a Texas-style execution process."

In fact, the real question isn't whether the death penalty will be abolished--but how soon, and how many lives will be lost along the way.

"Most people today acknowledge the inevitability of capital punishment being abandoned eventually," said Bright. "The only question is whether it is relatively soon or many years from now. My expectation is that it will increasingly being limited to Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma and a few other states, which will be viewed as pariah states by the rest of the world, until they are forced to abandon it as well."

That's why this is such a critical time to build the movement to hasten the end of the death penalty.

Evidence of the system's flaws

IN MID-JANUARY, Virginia announced that new DNA testing proved that Roger Coleman was guilty of a 1981 crime for which he was executed in 1992. The news came as a shock to anti-death penalty activists who had sought the testing for years, hoping that it would show Coleman's innocence.

"While this news is surprising to many of us, we must keep our eyes focused on the overwhelming conclusive evidence that already exists in so many death penalty cases," said Marlene Martin, of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "The death penalty already has a record that proves beyond doubt that it is discriminatory and used against the poor. With more than 120 people exonerated and freed from death row in 30 years, we already know that the death penalty system is fatally flawed."

Rob Warden of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions agreed. "Even though we now know that Coleman was guilty, that doesn't alter the fact that Virginia proceeded with the execution not knowing whether he was guilty or not," Warden told Socialist Worker.

"DNA testing at the time included him among 2 percent of the population who could have been the source of the biological material in the case--meaning, basically, there was a 98 percent probability that he was guilty. Now that the number of [post-1976] executions has exceeded 1,000, the question we ought to be asking is whether 98 percent accuracy is good enough? How many of us would get on an airplane, if there were only a 98 percent probability of landing safely?"

Don't let them kill Vernon Evans
By Mike Stark

MARYLAND GOV. Robert Ehrlich is on a killing spree. Having just executed Wesley Baker on December 5, he waited barely a month to schedule the execution of Vernon Evans for February 6. The execution would be the third state killing since Ehrlich took office--more than any other Maryland governor since reinstatement of the death penalty.

Like the majority of those on Maryland's death row, Vernon Evans is a poor Black man accused of killing white victims. But Ehrlich brushed off the results of a 2003 study that found Maryland's death penalty was applied in a racially biased and geographically arbitrary manner. The study concluded that Black defendants who kill white victims were much more likely to receive a death sentence than any other racial combination.

Vernon was convicted of the 1983 murder-for-hire killings of David Scott Piechowicz and Susan Kennedy in a Baltimore County hotel.

Too poor to afford a decent lawyer, Vernon, who has always maintained his innocence, was convicted in a trial based on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch and no physical evidence. The only eyewitness, who did not appear at Vernon's trial, later testified under oath that the shooter was a lot taller than Vernon--who is only 5-foot-2-inches and nicknamed "Shorty"--and that the shooter's clothes did not match what Vernon was wearing at the time.

In Vernon's trial, the prosecutor used 8 of his ten challenges against African Americans jurors, even though only 20 percent of the jury pool was Black.

Despite the desperate circumstances he grew up in, Vernon's humanity and compassion are evident to anyone who has contact with him. He and his family are active participants in the movement against the death penalty. Vernon has authored a blog (www.meetvernon.blogspot.com), conducted a seminar at Mount St. Mary's College and participated in numerous "Live from Death Row" events.

The movement against the death penalty--and Vernon's participation in it--is the greatest challenge to Ehrlich's push to speed up executions in Maryland.

For information on how to get involved in the fight to stop Vernon's execution, contact the Campaign to End the Death Penalty at [email protected].

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