In a 20-page decision you can read here, Federal Judge Orlando Garcia granted Jeff Wood a Stay of Execution, putting of a death sentence that was to have been carried out yesterday. Judge Garcia called the death penalty system in the State of Texas “insane” in his decision:
With all due respect, a system which requires an insane person to make “substantial showing” of his own lack of mental capacity without the assistance of counsel or a mental health expert, in order to obtain assistance is, by definition, an insane system.
It is inconsistent with the mandates of both Panetti and Ford for the state of Texas to deny an indigent death row inmate asserting a claim that he is incompetent to be executed the assistance of counsel until said inmate first satisfies arcane pleadings requirements so intellectually challenging they test the skill of even the most seasoned attorney
The Texas Moratorium Network is posting a piece from the Houston Chronicle reporting that Wood’s lawyers will have to submit an evaluation on his mental state from mental health experts by January 2009. Truly distrubing are the comments to the article on the Chronicle website. They spout the usual misinformation about the death penalty being a deterent (it can’t be or no one would commit capital crimes, but capital crimes are not commited by rational thinking people therefore the deterent effect is useless). Most striking however is the example of what type of society we create when we approve of state sponsored killing. When we approve of killing, which we exemplify by executions, it manifests itself in the attitudes demonstrated by the commentators to the Chronicle’s article. There is little or no understanding or sympathy for the nuance of the Wood case, there is pride in the fact that Texas has (as a minority commenter put it) death penalty by association under the Law of Parties and executes a lot of people.
A few people have asked me why I am so interested in this case and in capital punishment. That’s a fair question. My interest began while doing my college internship for Amnesty International. One of the events I worked on was the first national student (high school and college) conference on the aboltion of the death of penalty. This was held at Northeastern University in November of 1989. Participants included Sister Helen Prejean most widely known for her story and work with death row inmates Dead Man Walking, Clive Stafford Smith, and Hugo Adam Bedau.
The death penalty is lowest common denominator. It uses to killing to say killing or other violent crime is wrong. The old childhood proverb is correct, however, two wrongs don’t make a right.
The death penalty is throwing our hands up in the air as a society and saying we give up, there is nothing we can do, but execute people we don’t like (because they are bad). In essence this is what Hitler did. We dehumanize criminals, Nazis dehumanized innocents, but once a society allows dehumanization, the process expands, it doesn’t contract. Notice how our society now dehumanizes terrorists and by extention, anyone who “looks like” a terrorist?
There is no way to have a fool-proof death penalty system and too many innocent people are executed. It got so bad in Illinois, that in 2000 a Republican governor put a moratorium on executions. 129 known and proven innocent people have been released from death row since 1973.
David Chandler at Progressive Writers Bloc brings up some of my favorite points in interesting ways:
The geography of executions is telling. The densely populated Northeast (more people, more crime?) has the lowest murder rate nationally and has executed only 3 people since 1976. The Western states have executed 59, the Midwest 96, and the South 735. Texas and Virginia alone account for 406 of the South’s total. The states in which a black man was most likely to be lynched in past decades are the states that execute the most black men today.
Hand in hand with racial discrimination is economic discrimination. In California in the 1980’s, 42% of blue-collar workers convicted of first-degree murder received the death penalty, compared to only 5% of white-collar workers convicted of similar crimes. Most defendants in capital cases cannot afford to hire their own attorney. This is clearly tied to the high rate of error in convictions.
The reason that is closest to my heart for opposing the death penalty is that it is about retribution, not restoration. Currently our criminal justice system is one based solely on handing out punishment, but punishing wrong doing does not always make whole. Making whole requires restoration. I’m not sure that there is a way to make completely whole victims of violent crime, but I am certain it needs to go beyond just punishing the criminal. It must involve forgiveness, making amends, creating a system and a society that is better at recognizing and caring for pain and suffering and I don’t see our current system, however full of bravado or however strong it may appear to execute someone, doing that.
Again, David Chandler,
The death penalty is based on the concept of retribution: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life.” Retribution is not about protecting society. That is accomplished once the criminal is imprisoned. Rather, it is a way of collectively venting our anger. When we have been wronged we have an urge to strike back and make the offender suffer. When someone is murdered we feel we owe it to the family of the victim to avenge the death of their loved one. But vengeance cannot reverse the original act or heal the pain. Instead it arouses and legitimizes our own murderous impulses. Vengeance does violence to the soul and perpetuates violence in society.
Retribution is Biblical, but so is its antithesis. When Jesus was asked whether a woman taken in adultery should be stoned to death in accordance with the Mosaic law, he responded simply, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone….” By his response he rejects the entire concept of retribution. All of us, both accusers and accused, are flawed human beings, so mercy, not retribution, is appropriate. Jesus changes the focus to restoration and healing.
Executing people is enacting revenge on a societal scale. There isn’t a person among us who wouldn’t feel some pull for revenge if she or he were the victim of violent crime, but that doesn’t mean it is the best response. Most of the rest of world has given up on this, frankly, barbaric practice of executing other human beings. The leading executing countries in the world are China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia … and the United States. Iraq used to be in there, too. What wonderful company to be keeping. Not an open, caring democracy among them.
[The death penalty] is hurtful to us and it diminishes us. We become more and more desensitized. Where do we stop? How do we decide who lives and who dies? We have put ourselves on a very slippery slope.
– Bishop Edmond Carmody of Texas
The majority of those on death row are poor, powerless, and educationally deprived. Almost 50 percent come from minority groups. This reflects the broad inequities within our society, and the inequity with which the ultimate is applied. This alone is sufficient reason for opposing [the death penalty] as immoral and unjust.
— General Board of the American Baptist Churches, Resolution on Capital Punishment, passed June 1977.
[Capital punishment is a] cruel hoax that is sold to the families of victims. They are so vulnerable, the easiest thing to sell them is anger. It’s the biggest disservice we can do to them.
— Rabbi Alan Lew, Spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco.
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. … In fact, violence merely increases hate. … Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Make your way to death row and speak with the tragic victims of criminality. As they prepare to make their pathetic walk to the electric chair, their hopeless cry is that society will not forgive. Capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.
I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime – rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.
I should be on the front line for those advocating the death penalty, [but] we have always been consistently against the death penalty.
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., pastor, pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement.
I oppose the death penalty as I oppose all murder, as I oppose the imposition of suffering on all beings through the action of the individual, group, or state. My opposition is based on simply my own choice. It does not rely on any scriptural command of my tradition, any dogma, any external coercion or any commandment from above. My opposition is my responsibility, it is my “ability-to-respond.” Who I am is who I choose to be, consciously and deliberately — I am not who I am told to be. I choose for myself to adhere the First Precept of Buddhism that goes something like this: “I am reverential and mindful of all life, I am not violent and I do not kill”.
— Venerable Kobutsu Malone, zenji – American Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest, volunteer death row chaplain and social justice activist.
I don’t want a moratorium on the death penalty. I want the abolition of it. I can’t understand why a country that’s so committed to human rights doesn’t find the death penalty an obscenity.»«I am passionately opposed to the death penalty for anyone … I think, myself, that it is an obscenity … that brutalizes society.
— Desmond Tutu, South African Archbishop, Nobel Peace Prize winner, about the death penalty in the U.S.A.