Saturday, July 25, 2009

America Executes Another American Citizen

On Tuesday, July 21st, the state of Ohio executed a 36-year-old man from Dayton named Marvallous Keene by lethal injection. Keene was the 1000th American to be executed by lethal injection since 1977 and the 35th American executed so far in 2009. He was executed despite the fact that he no longer posed a threat to anyone. He had been in prison for 17 years after all, having been convicted along with three accomplices for killing six people in 1992. (The accomplices each got life in prison.)

Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty marked the grim occasion with a rally and march in Atlanta against the death penalty, according to an article by Atlanta Progressive News.

It's encouraging to see a movement to abolish the death penalty rising up in the South, the region where I was born and raised and where the super-majority of American executions happen. Of all the executions in 2009, 16 have occurred in Texas, five in Alabama, two in Georgia, two in South Carolina, one in Tennessee, one in Virginia, and one in Florida, plus three in Oklahoma, three in Ohio, and one in Missouri. Is it just coincidence that 80% of American executions so far this year have happened in the former Confederate States? (For whatever it's worth, Missouri was a slave state, though it didn't secede.) In fact, the Old Confederacy accounts for roughly 80% of all executions this decade. I believe this is an underlooked aspect of the death penalty debate.

It's hard not to see the death penalty as a barbaric institution of backwards cultures. The United States stands alone among modern Western nations in continuing to execute its citizens. The USA annually ranks near the top of the charts for most executions, behind appalling regimes like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, and ahead of appalling regimes like Syria, Somalia, and Sierra Leone. And we rank among such bad company mostly because of our states where lynching was most common and racism ran the deepest in our not-too-distant past.

It's also hard not to see the connection between partisan politics and the death penalty in America. Is it a coincidence that just as New Mexico became a reliably "blue" state (Obama won it by 15 points and both senators and the governor are Democrats), it abolished the state's death penalty? Virginia, another recently blue state, finally got a governor who opposes the death penalty. Of the 15 states that have abolished the death penalty, only two of them (Alaska and West Virginia) voted for John McCain in 2008 (and most of them have homicide rates below the national average).

But how much longer will Democratic politicians have to tip-toe around the issue? In New Mexico, Governor Richardson says he personally supports the death penalty but thinks it should be abolished in his state. In Virginia, Governor Kaine says he personally opposes the death penalty but will respect Virginia's death penalty laws. Some of the waffling can be tied back to Michael Dukakis' famously and embrrassingly lame answer to a death penalty question in the 1988 presidential debate, which many later pointed to as the beginning of the end of his campaign. More generally, Democratic cautiousness on the issue has to do with wanting to avoid the "soft on crime" attacks that "law and order" Republicans have been using since the late 1960s. Back then, those phrases were code words skillfully used to stoke working-class White fear of urban Blacks, as part of the Nixonian "Southern Strategy" that propelled Republican candidates for a generation. So it's not a surprise that pro-death penalty arguments still have the most sway in the Old Confederacy, where Republican politicians and executions are still plentiful.

But the Southern Strategy is dying, and the law-and-order arguments are dying with it. It won't be long before we see prominent national Democrats unashamedly opposing the death penalty. And it won't be long after that before the United States joins the rest of the civilized world in abolishing the barbaric institution of state-sponsored revenge killings.


dudleysharp said...

It is primarily a social issue.When a governor is anti death penalty and there is enough anti death penalty legislators, that will get rid of the death penalty, as in New Jersey and New Mexico.

It has nothing to do with the specific arguements, because the pro death penalty positon is much stronger.

I am a former anti death penalty guy, who, now contends, that all anti death penalty arguments are either false or can be, strongly, countered.

"Rebuttal to Governor Richardson - Repeal of the Death Penalty in New Mexico"

"Why did Gov. Richardson repeal the death penalty? His legacy"

"DEAD WRONG: New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission"

Response, at bottom. One of four responses to New Jersey Assembly Speaker Roberts.


Some notes on New Mexico:

Specific anti death penalty arguments may have had no effect on the final outcome.

First, those arguments are, easily, rebutted or countered.

Secondly, New Mexico lawmakers state that the Democratic election propelled the death penalty repeal.

From The (Santa Fe) New Mexican newspaper: "Friday's decisive state Senate vote to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico was a direct result of November's election of several new lawmakers." The repeal bill's sponsor, Rep. Gail Chase said she was able to get the bill through because the 2008 election added three more senators to the Democratic majority" "District Attorney Lem Martinez, who spoken against the repeal bill, said "the Senate vote was the result of (President Barack) Obama's coattails." ("Senate backs death-penalty repeal", Steve Terrell, 3/13/09)

Furthermore, the newest anti death penalty issue, cost, had nothing to do with it.

The New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) was, clearly, in error, with their cost evaluations in their bill analysis - a fact which I pointed out to the NM legislature. First, New Mexico used a North Carolina cost study, which had no relevance in New Mexico. Secondly, the LFC misinterpreted the study, which actually finds the death penalty to be less expensive than a true life sentence, the opposite of the LFC statement.

Dave said...

Mr. Sharp, I agree that repealing the death penalty state-by-state is largely a matter of getting anti-death penalty governors and legislators in office and that that generally means Democrats, as was the case in New Mexico. I earnestly hope the same thing will happen all over the country, especially in the Southern states that commit the huge majority of executions and have the highest murder rates.

I obviously disagree that "all anti death penalty arguments are either false or can be, strongly, countered." I don't know how one could counter a moral argument that we simply shouldn't execute people when they are locked up and no longer a threat. Or how do you counter the (sort of libertarian) argument that governments should not have such enormous power to legally take the most sacred thing--life--from their citizens? Or how does one counter the (sort of mathematical) argument that as we continue to execute people through an imperfect human justice system, we will inevitably execute innocent persons at times. It's true that there is no proven instance where that's been the case since 1976. But does anyone seriously say it wasn't the case earlier in American history? Does anyone seriously say we won't in the future execute an innocent person? I think the answer from the pro-death penalty crowd is simply that they don't care, that it's the price we must pay.

I ask, For what are we paying that price? Not deterrence, because the death penalty does not deter homicide ( If the answer is vengeance, I say vengeance is not worth such a high cost.

You raise the issue of monetary cost near the end of your comment. I have heard the argument raised that it's actually more expensive to execute people than to keep them locked up the rest of their lives. And if that's true, it's just one more reason to stop executing people. But if the opposite is true--if it's cheaper to execute people than to keep them in prison--it seems pretty wicked to use that as a pro-execution argument and kill someone because it would cost us a little more to keep them alive.

Thanks for stopping by.

dudleysharp said...

Of course the death penalty deters. All prospects of a negative outcome/conseqeunce deter some.It is a trusim.

For some of the recent 16 deterrence studies, go to:

US Senate testimony

"I oppose the death penalty. " " But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them?" "Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it." "The results are robust, they don't really go away" "The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.".

Prof. Naci Mocan, Economics Chairman, University of Colorado at Denver
"Studies say death penalty deters crime", ROBERT TANNER, Associated Press, Jun 10, 2007, 2:01 PM ET

dudleysharp said...

"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

"Death Penalty, Deterrence & Murder Rates: Let's be clear"

Cost Savings: The Death Penalty

Deterrence and the Death Penalty: A Reply to Radelet and Lacock

dudleysharp said...

You left out that the most substantial reason to support the death penalty is justice, the same basis used to support all other legal sanctions, as well.

The justification for a sanction is not based upon them being incapable of harming others, again,it is based upon them being sanctioned because they deserve it.Judges and juries give the death penalty because they find it a more appropriate sanction, for the crime committed, than any lesser sentence.

Not to mention the obvious, that living murderers harm and murder, again, executed ones do not.

If the libertarian argument is as you say it is, I see no evidencefrom that that they are correct and that we should not execute.

Sara said...

I don't think that I could ever take the life of another person in my own hands, as in an execution. Unless they were an immediate threat. Hard to say if they killed someone I loved. (Just being honest!)It just doesn't sit well with me that people who have without a doubt committed the most horrific of crimes are only punished by a jail sentence. Sucks. But I guess they'll get theirs eventually.
I agree that it's dangerous territory to tread given the possibility of executing innocent people.

Dave said...

I think the "immediate threat" point you raise is a good one, Sara. And if we went by that rule, the only time we would kill murderers would be in immediate self defense or in immediate defense of others--to stop a murder from happening. And that's the way it should be. But to take someone the police have already caught and locked away, and to tell them the day they are going to die, and on that day to strap them to a table or chair and kill them, is a tremendous and horrible power that we should not claim.

Like you, if someone close to me were murdered, I would probably want the killer to be executed. But I am not, nor should I be, the justice system. And this is where I wish Michael Dukakis had shown a freaking pulse. He was asked if his wife were raped and murdered whether he would support the execution of her killer, and he coolly launched into his rehearsed answer to death penalty questions. As if he felt zero emotion.

He should have said, "Of course I would want the killer dead...I would probably want him to die a slow and painful death. But the wrath of a shocked and grieving husband in the darkest moment of his life should not be the moral compass that our society follows."

It's the same concept with the pro-war crowd who tell us we need to be thinking in a "September 12th" mindset when it comes to foreign policy. It's like, really? Eight years later, we should try to hold on to that white-hot rage and bloodlust that immediately followed the most horrific attack ever on America--and that should be the foundation of our policy going forward?

On a final note, I sometimes think about the death penalty throughout history. I think about how the person whom I consider to have been the most loving, most inspiring, most fully alive person ever on Earth--Jesus--was executed by the government. I think about, in American history, how many good, innocent people were executed for organizing for a better life, striking, protesting, standing up for basic human rights, and speaking truth to power. I think about how, right now, in countries across the world people are executed for minor offenses, or in political purges, or how China has "execution vans" that they drive out into the countryside. And then I think, what makes us, in America, at this particular point in history, think that we are so different than all these other past and present executioners? What makes us think that we do it so well, that we are the exception? I think the arrogance and willful ignorance it takes to answer those questions on the side of the death penalty lead us to commit even greater evils than executions.

Sara said...

Well put! I agree. It's pretty much a responsibility none of us are qualified for. (For which none of us are qualified ;)...)
Arrogance and willful ignorance sums it up. About a lot of things.

Amy said...

Really interesting post, Dave. As you know, I've gone back and forth on this issue. But you've given me a lot to think about, as usual!

It's interesting that in the States being pro-death penalty is often considered synonymous with being a Christian. (In more conservative Christian circles) Living overseas for four years now, I've found often that Christians I meet from other nations are amazed that American believers support the death penalty. For many of them, it just does NOT compute. Yet many American Christians feel there is no other way to interpret Scripture. I guess it's easy to take a cultural value and make it a religious one, eh?