Friday, January 25, 2008

Liberty or Death?

In the debates accompanying each party's primary, much is being said about government's proper role in helping the poor, in fighting terrorism, and about crime, among many other things. In fact, in recent weeks the Clinton and Obama camps have brought racial issues into the mix, almost as never before, and Toni Morrison's famous characterization of Bill Clinton as "America's first black President" (yeah, right) has been brought up many times. John Edwards, at least in my view, has stayed out of this, choosing instead to target corporate greed as one of the most pressing problems we face.

But one issue has been largely missing from the debates. I was surprised to find out today that all 3 Democratic Candidates are pro-death penalty, via this Alternet story.

"Clinton, Obama and Edwards all support capital punishment. It's a position you'd be hard pressed to find on their websites, and they might not be bragging about it the way they might have in, say, 2000. Or 1996. Or 1992, the year their party's pro-death penalty stance was codified in its official party platform and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made a campaign trail detour to Arkansas, where he presided over the execution of mentally damaged prisoner Ricky Ray Rector. Nevertheless, all three hold on to their pro-death penalty stance, as have virtually all leading Democrats running for office in the past 20 years.

Why so much longstanding support for capital punishment? It is the easiest way to combat the quadrennial charge that Democrats are "soft on crime."

As the article goes on to say, this support was likely due to the way "Michael Dukakis was lampooned after a 1988 debate in which he failed to wax bloodthirsty when asked if he'd want to execute a theoretical rapist/murderer if the victim was his wife, Kitty."

I'm not trying to lambast the Democrats for this "stand," or rather lack thereof, as they obviously make it for complicated reasons.

But isn't the nation crying out for leadership on issues like this? Couldn't Edwards, who's likely to lose anyway, fulfill his mission of focusing the race on the right things by confronting this issue? For example, remember the way all three candidates tried to appeal to African American voters in South Carolina this week? Wouldn't it have been wonderful to see Edwards draw attention to this issue by pointing out the fact that, as Bill Moyers recently stated:

"Amnesty International urged the UN to pass a resolution for a moratorium on capital punishment declaring that it 'has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than other punishments.'... The American Bar Association has also called for a moratorium on capital punishment. And in late October, just moments before a prisoner in Mississippi was scheduled to die by lethal injection, the Supreme Court issued a stay of execution. This month, New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty, sparing the lives of eight men on the state's death row."

One of those executed in Texas three years ago was Dominique Green. Thomas Cahill, author of HOW THE IRISH SAVED CIVILIZATION, is coming out with a new book about Green's life, and death, as he turns his attention to more recent history. Cahill, in an interview with Moyers, describes Green's case as:

"[W]hat actually happened was-- and it's in an instance of how badly this is done in Texas, there were four kids. One of them was white. He was not charged with anything. Ever. And you cannot interview him til this day.


THOMAS CAHILL: You can't find him. But he exists. I know his name. And the other three were black. Dominique was the youngest. And the two others turned against him to get lighter sentences, it looks to me. And they decided that he would take the rap. He was certainly guilty of robbery. I don't think he was guilty of murder. But even if he was, I don't think --- that's not what I see in this. What I see in this is that we as a country are actually sacrificing children to an evil God, to the God of whatever this justice is that we-- instead of take-- instead of doing something for Dominique Green who grew up without the aid of civilization, we condemn him to death, and to the torture of 11 years on death row. There was a trial. There was very bad representation. The judge that Dominique came up before was the same judge who in a slightly earlier appeal had been asked to reverse a decision because the lawyer who represented this kid in this earlier trial, had slept throughout the trial. And everyone had seen that and everyone knew about it. And the judge, in his decision, said, "The Constitution gives you the right to a lawyer. It doesn't say whether he has to be awake or not." So, I mean, this sort of-- there is, I think throughout the country but especially in the state of Texas, there is a kind of collusion among lawyers whether they're prosecutors or defenders, and judges, and an awful lot of horrible things happen in order to get as many people as possible executed.

Cahill also describes in this interview the fact that Green eventually became close with the two sons of the man who was killed, even describing how Green's rosary was given to one of the boys. You can read the article online at the links or download it for free on itunes.

I have great respect for John Edwards and the attention he's directed toward important issues other candidates are conveniently and self-servingly not bringing up. But it surprised me to hear that, despite his leadership on other issues facing the poor, he hasn't taken a stand against the death penalty.

Wouldn't the sleeping judge presiding over Green's trial and the way Green drew the support of the Pope and, presumably at least, of his victim's children make for a good story for John to tell, much as he uses individual stories to highlight issues that are being ignored?

Or have we reached a point where it's impossible for a viable candidate to do anything other than pander to the audience by pretending that the death penalty isn't (1) expensive to administer, (2) incapable of being remedied should further evidence ever be produced, much as DNA advancements have done recently, and (3) disproportionately applied to poor and African American defendants?

Wouldn't that stand not only be the right one to take, but also indicative of the leadership the public desperately craves?

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