The people here may or may
not need convincing that the American death penalty is heinous and
should be abolished, which has already been done in the vast majority of countries around the world.
The European Union has taken the initiative of preventing members states from retaining the death
penalty, even countries such as South Africa and Russia, once considered oppressive regimes, have
abolished the death penalty, yet the United States continues to embrace this barbaric practice to a
large degree. With politicians, judges, district attorneys and others all using it as a stepping stone to
political office, in order that they be considered "tough on crime."
Yet , most people labour
under some serious misconceptions about the death penalty and how it is
applied in the US. Even an American journalist I consulted had a preconception that the
deathpenalty was arcane and rarely utilized...and that the typical scenario was that of the storyline of
the Hollywood movie "True Crime", in which Clint Eastwood, as a reporter with a conscience,
uncovers the "true facts" about the accused's case so that he is given a reprieve even after the
process of lethal injection has begun. She told me that most Americans believe that death penalty
inmates are typically given stays of execution from kind-hearted governors, and that most executions
are thus never carried out. The "True Crime" is that, ever since the death penalty was re-instated in
1976, more than 3,600 people have been sentenced to death, which does not include the 600 plus
who have been executed. Already, in the year 2,000, there have been over 30 executions, with the
state of Texas contributing 12. Just in the rest of this month, eleven more executions are scheduled to
take place in the USA, of these - 8 of them are expected to be carried out, while stays pending
further appeal are likely in the others.
The rate and number of executions
is dramatically increasing. 1999 can boast the most executions at
any time since the early fifties, and 2000 is certain to exceed last years numbers. What most people
fail to realize is that the death penalty has been reinstated in the US for nearly twenty five years now.
The majority of death row prisoners are approaching the end of their appeals process; both those
sentenced in the late seventies and early eighties, as well as those who have been sentenced since Bill
Clinton signed into law the Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in the mid nineties in the
wake of the Oklahoma bombing tragedy. Before that, inmates sentenced to die could expect to
spend anywhere from fifteen to twenty five years on death row, while they exhausted all of their
appeals at the state and federal levels. Canadian Stan Faulder, who was executed in Texas after
spending two decades on death row, was one of these prisoners, as is renowned author Mumia Abu
Jamal, on death row in Pennsylvania. Throughout the 80's and '90s various laws were passed at the
state level to limit the time a prisoner has to file his next appeal before another date is set. Then with
the passing of the federal law, they have severely curtailed the number of appeals and the length of
time in which appeals can be filed. Thus, prisoners sentenced since 1995, can now expect to be
executed within 5 or 6 years from the date of conviction. Since 1976, state after state has
reintroduced the death penalty, and 38 of the states now have the death penalty on the books. As
the number of executions is increasing, the potential exists that we will begin to see mass executions
of dozens of prisoners on the same day in different states as execution dates begin to overlap. The
combination of older prisoners exhausting their lengthy appeals process, and the new prisoners who
are expected to be executed much more quickly, will very soon result in a bloodbath in the US
'justice' system, with the numbers increasing into the hundreds exponentially on an annual basis.
In a system where the poor,
the disenfranchised, the uneducated, and the ethnic minorities dominate
death rows across America, it is no joke that when a wealthy white male commits a crime, he is
typically sentenced to serve time at a "country-club" prison where he can "practice his tennis serve."
In a society where the rich are getting richer at an unprecedented pace, the poor are getting not just
poorer but more ostracized and alienated from society.
Since 1973, over 87 inmates
have been released from Death Row because their innocence has been
proved. That means 87 people who would otherwise have been legally murdered. How many other
people among the 3,600 plus are also innocent...but doomed to die?
Take the case of Jimmy Dennis.
A young black man from the ghetto of Philadelphia, Dennis was
convicted and sentenced to death for the shooting of a 17 year old girl in broad daylight. Although
numerous eyewitness accounts described the shooter as being a tall, very dark-skinned Black man
weighing around 200 lbs., and the light-complected Dennis was 5'4" and 125 lbs., the notoriously
racist Philadelphia, PA police outdid themselves in a frenzy to find a shooter--and anyone would
suffice. Finally, one intimidated young man from the ghetto, Charles Thompson, named Dennis--after
being hand-cuffed, coerced and threatened for hours by five detectives with an incomprehensible
agenda. Although Thompson has recanted twice, "facts" were never an issue in the Dennis case.
Dennis' own attorney, a man whom he had seen only once before his trial, summoned up the spirit of
the case when Dennis asked him about fingerprint evidence that could exonerate him. Shrugging his
shoulders, the attorney smugly said, "Who cares?Its not your fingerprints, so why worry about it". As
the prosecutor stated in his closing argument, in addressing the fact that Jimmy didn't even fit the
description, "This is not a case about race, weight, or height, this is about the right that is right..." the
right to take the subway and not be assaulted - the prosecutor essentially closed his argument saying
they had to send a strong message to the community - not convict the right man.
Compare this scenario to
that of the well-documented case of John and Patricia Ramsey. When their
daughter JonBenet was found garrotted, beaten to death and sexually-assaulted in their basement,
they both immediately "lawyered up" and even hired a public relations firm to represent them. While
the police investigation into both of them as suspects persevered, the Ramseys took parties on
yachts, gave barbeque dinners at their summer home, and even took a vacation to Spain. As Amos
King, a Florida death row prisoner wrote us, "Its not necessarily those with the worse crimes on
death row, but those with the worse lawyers."
Jimmy Dennis, who never had
an iota of evidence against him, languishes on death row eating
bologna sandwiches and taking a shower a week, enduring the humiliation of prison, knowing that his
life will someday be snuffed out for a crime he had no participation in. Although three Supreme
Court justices thought that Dennis should get a new trial, they were overruled.
The American legal system
is set up so that a frequent scenario is that a poor and uneducated person
who cannot afford high-priced legal "talent" pleads guilty even though he may be innocent, believing
that copping a guilty plea will spare his life. A jury, however, will naturally think that if someone has
pled guilty then he must be so, evidence to the contrary be damned...and the befuddled defendant
ends up on Death Row. On the other hand, the prosecutor will say to the defendant, 'plead guilty
and you'll get a life sentence. You fight this and we're asking for the death penalty. ' The defendant
who maintains their innocence is then subject to the death penalty for failing to admit to something he
did not do. As Jimmy Dennis said when he was offered a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea,
"An innocent man doesn't make deals," and took his chances with a jury. Dennis believed that the
lack of facts against him and the re-canting of eyewitnesses would exonerate him...that logic and
justice would prevail.
The Supreme Court in more
than one state has ruled that "Evidence of actual innocence (such as
DNA proof, new evidence of someone else committing the crime) can NOT be taken into
consideration when one appeals a death penalty conviction, the court only addresses issues relating
to the original trial. Thus, if you were falsely convicted, there are no grounds for a re-trial.
In one symbolic decision,
Herrera vs. Collins, 506, U.S. 390, 427-428 (1993), it was ruled that
"There is no basis in text, tradition or even in contemporary practice (as if that were enough) for
finding in the Constitution a right to demand judicial consideration of newly-discovered innocence
brought forward after conviction."
Yet suppose Fred Zain, a
former DNA States Expert had testified at your original trial? He has been
accused of falsifying over 100 DNA results for both police and prosecutors to match whatever the
state wanted in both life and death-penalty cases. Dr. James Grigson, an ostensible "Psychiatric
Expert Stae Witness" also testified in hundreds of cases on the accused's mental stability, advising
the court whether or not he felt he would be prone to further violence--a legal predicate, since
malicious intent must be proven in capital cases. In every single case in which he testified, he branded
the defendant as a menace to society. He has subsequently been barred from most psychiatric
boards for being incompetent. Who is the true meance to society?
In an episode of the award-winning
network televison show "Law and Order", the crack legal
advisers obviously had strong feelings about the fact that the lunatics are running the asylum. In one
exceptionally well-written episode, veteran actor Steven Hill, playing District Attorney Adam Schiff,
cynically tells his staff, "Haven't you heard? Justice Scalia has said that proof of innocence is not
sufficient evidence to support a re-trial."
Perhaps the Bettie
Lou Beets story personifies the "typical" death row inmate...since
the number of
female "dead women walking" is increasing exponentially.
Hearing-impaired since infancy
after a severe bout of the Measles, Beets was first raped by her
father at the age of five. Her mother and aunt attended to her afterwards, following in a decades-old
family tradition of incest. Coming from the most extreme poverty in rural North carolina, she was
forced to leave school at age 12 when her mother was hospitalized with mental problems. Married at
15, Beets didn't get hearing aids for 25 years, despite the fact that she was a Welfare recipient and
was in the hands of "Social Services". Learning to hear sound but not words, she realized how
vulnerable she had been while totally deaf. How it had contributed to her being raped, tortured,
beaten and left for dead, held at gunpoint by her various husbands. And yet, she stoically plodded
on, trying to raise her six children on the $250 a month "The Welfare" had given her. Before her
execution, Beets wrote, "I can recall the times I was beaten if I answered and beaten if I didn't. It
was the same outcome." After acquiring her hearing aids, she wrote, "I kept to myself a lot where I
didn't have to hear any input so no one knew any different or that I didn't know what they were
talking about. People sometimes say how quiet I was and I would just smile and say,'I'm listening.'
This, so no one would tease me about not hearing or about my hearing aids after I got them."
And yet, when she finally
fought back against her final abusive husband in self-defense, the "State"
finally listened very seriouslyto her--they gave her a death sentence. The fact that she was deaf and
couldn't even hear her own trial was deliberately kept a secret. Her own children and grand-children,
who had witnessed her constant verbal, physical and sexual abuse supported her, as did battered
women's groups across the USA. Still, this tragic but brave person, who was eloquent enough to
quote Helen Keller in her final statement on behalf of all battered women, actually said that death
would be preferable to the incessant strip-searches she endured on Death Row, Ever since her first
rape at the age of five, she had had a phobia about nudity, and even kept her diapered infant children
fully-clothed at all times.
Death as preferable to life with constant strip-searching?
One should judge a society
not by the way it caters to its over-priveleged, but by the manner in
which it treats its poorest, most vulnerable, members. The disabled, the disenfranchised, the elderly,
the children, the Bettie Lou Beets
Everyone who values the sanctity
of all life, or who crusades for civil liberties, or human rights, those
who fight against racism, against police and government abuses, for the poor... we call on you to join
us in the same fight - against the ultimate injustice - the ultimate police and government abuse - the
ultimate institutionalized racism...the ultimate devastation to those who are poor and who cannot
seek assistance - the death penalty.
I would like to end my presentation
today with the words of Jorge
Cordova, a Texas death row
prisoner who was executed in February of 1999. Jorge was the first death row prisoner that we had
corresponded with, to be executed, shortly after we recieved his request for a burial fund so that he
could be buried outside the prison walls. In an essay he wrote to be posted on his personal webpage
on the internet - he addresses the public.
"Whoever is reading this
message, whether you are Republican, Democrat, liberal or conservative,
right or left winger, or simply an ambiguous proponent of the death penalty, on behalf of all the poor,
befallen, downtrodden men, the main majority who are illiterate and cannot write to express their
pain and sincere, heartfelt contrition, I beseech your support, mercy, compassion, love and
understanding. For, I believe that, it'll be the people like you who will make the difference, who will
slow down the fast pace of evil and eventually cause it to run out of steam, wither and die. Alone,
you are the best soldier on the field; united, marching under the banner of reason, truth and logic, you
become even better. "
To see Jorge Cordova's memorial
website, along with the websites we maintain for over 250
death row prisoners, visit our site at www.ccadp.org, and for details on the case of Jimmy Dennis,
an innocent man on death row in Pennsylvania, visit his international justice for jimmy campaign page
at www.jimmydennis.com which has case information in several languages and links to pages for
Jimmy from Turkey to Singapore. Your help is needed!
- as published in The Ethical
Spectacle August 2000 www.spectacle.org
Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty firstname.lastname@example.org
The CCADP offers free webpages to over 300 Death Row Inmates
Contact us for more information.
"The Eyes Of The World Are Watching Now"