Sunday, October 10, 2010

10/10: World Day Against the Death Penalty

Today, October 10, is the world day against the death penalty. New Zealand finally abolished the death penalty over 20 years ago, but 58 countries still retain it. Today is the day we work to change that.

This year the focus is on the United States. Not only is the USA alone in the western world in practicing capital punishment - it also executes the mentally ill and mentally disabled in clear contravention of international law. Until recently, they also executed children.

Worse, they execute the innocent. In 2004, the state of Texas executed Cameron Willingham for setting a fire which killed his three children. The fire was later proven to be accidental. And he's not the only one. A depressing number of US death penalty convictions turn out to be dubious. All up, over a hundred US death row inmates have been subsequently exonerated. And racism is a common factor in these wrongful convictions. Clarence Brandley's story is typical [PDF, p. 4]:

Brandley was working as a high school custodian in Conroe, Texas, in 1980, when police arrested him for the murder of Cheryl Fergeson, a 16-year-old student.

While the police interviewed Brandley and one of his white co-workers, an interrogator proclaimed that, “One of you two is going to hang for this,” and told Clarence, “Since you’re the nigger, you’re elected.” In his first trial he faced an all-white jury. One juror refused to convict, causing a hung jury, and was met with a constant barrage of harassment and threats after the trial ended, ridiculed for being a “nigger-lover.” Clarence’s second all-white jury convicted him, and in 1981 he was sentenced to death. A year later it was revealed that the majority of the murder investigation’s physical evidence had mysteriously disappeared while under police control. In 1986 a new witness stepped forward claiming to know the real murderer. Yet Clarence’s defense was repeatedly denied a new trial. With an execution date set for March 27, 1987, a vocal protest movement around his case began to grow.

In October of 1987, after extensive hearings detailing prosecutorial misconduct, the judge declared, “In the thirty years that this court has presided over matters in the judicial system, no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effects of racial prejudice…And public officials who lost sight of what is right and just.”

Texas "justice": may differ from actual justice, particularly if the defendant is black. Anyone who entrusts the power of life and death to a system capable of such errors needs their head examined.

But in addition to being racist and error-prone, the US system of capital punishment is simply wrong. Killing people is wrong. It's wrong when its done by murderers, its wrong when its done by lynchmobs, and its wrong when its done by the state. And sticking a gown and a wig on someone doesn't change that one iota.