The Common Good
May-June 1997

Arbitrary, Racist, and Unfair

by John Cole Vodicka | May-June 1997

Lawyers push for end to executions.

Twenty years ago, the United States got back into the business of killing its citizens when Gary Gilmore was shot to death by a Utah firing squad. Since then more than 360 people have been put to their deaths in 27 states, and today there are almost 3,500 people awaiting the executioner, more than at any other time in this country's history.

Four out of every five people polled say they favor capital punishment. Many even claim they would like to put non-murderers to death, including child molesters and drug dealers. One south Georgia prison warden recently said, "We ought to take the drug dealers and addicts out and shoot ’em like they do in them Arab countries. That’d stop ’em!"

There is a seeming lust for revenge all across our land, an "eye-for-an-eye" response to wrongdoing that has placed the United States in the company of countries like China, Iraq, and Iran—nations that routinely lead the world in numbers of executions and human rights abuses. The death penalty threatens to become a routine American response to those who offend our society.

That’s why the American Bar Association’s recent call for a moratorium on capital punishment came as exciting and hopeful news to those working to abolish the death penalty. By a more than 2-l margin, the House of Delegates of the nation’s pre-eminent lawyers’ organization voted in February to urge that the country’s execution chambers be shut down, at least until the death penalty can be carried out under the most fair and exacting procedures possible.

Though the ABA resolution stopped short of calling for capital punishment’s abolition, the lawyers did attack current inadequacies in death penalty law and procedural due process. Among other things, the ABA resolution pointed out that capital murder defendants often have no access to competent legal counsel; that the appeals process is not sufficient to determine violations of a person’s constitutional rights; and, perhaps most important, that the death penalty remains largely reserved for racial minorities and the poor.

"The death penalty is administered through a haphazard maze of unfair practices," the ABA resolution stated. "Truth and justice sometimes have little to do with whether an inmate ends up on death row in the U.S."

The ABA resolution was immediately attacked by states’ attorneys general, prosecutors, state and federal legislators, and even U.S. Justice Department officials and the White House. One Georgia congressional representative called the ABA action "unnecessary and extreme."

FOR DEATH PENALTY abolitionists, the resolution brings renewed hope that sentiment against the death penalty has begun to mount. Of course, there have been other times when the promise of change was in the air. There was a de facto moratorium on capital punishment in the United States from 1967-1976, which was lifted when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was constitutional.

Since then virtually every major religious denomination has issued statements demanding an end to capital punishment. Yet few denominations have made sure that their moral pronouncements were adopted and acted on by religious leaders and congregations. There has not yet been an effective, united religious effort to end this barbaric punishment.

Likewise, most major civil rights organizations also officially condemn capital punishment, though few actually make capital punishment a priority issue. The death penalty seldom appears on the nation’s moral compass. It’s usually ignored by those in a position to provide moral and political leadership to a public frightened and frustrated by crime and violence—or exploited by demagogues for political gain.

Death penalty abolitionists have always maintained what the ABA resolution pronounces: The death penalty in the United States is arbitrary and racist in its application; it doesn’t deter murder; and it is costly both in financial and human terms. Capital punishment is a horrifying lottery in which political, financial, and community pressures often play a decisive role in the decision to electrocute, gas, shoot, hang, or poison a person.

And while the ABA resolution does not deal directly with the moral implications of a people who condone the government’s killing of prisoners, the lawyers’ document ought to bolster those already solid moral and theological arguments which, up to now, seem to have fallen on largely deaf ears. And, ultimately, if the death penalty is ever abolished, it will be because we have come to a moral position that state murder is just as morally abhorrent as street murder.

The reality of the death penalty should offend the consciences of all Americans. The American Bar Association’s courageous stance can help underscore the death penalty’s unfairness and uselessness. It will also provide abolitionists with a useful tool in the struggle to rid our nation of a punitive, racist, and discredited form of punishment.

JOHN COLE VODICKA is director of the Prison & Jail Project in Americus, Georgia.

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