Every so often, one capital case makes a public spectacle of the American machinery of death. Last week, it was the controversy over Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia after years of impassioned argument, organizing and litigation.
I honor those who worked so hard to save Davis’s life because they forced the nation to deal with the imperfections and, in some instances, brutalities of the criminal justice system.
Yet after all the tears are shed, the repeal of capital punishment is still a political question. Can the politics of this question change? The answer is plainly yes.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1966, more Americans opposed the death penalty than supported it — by 47 percent to 42 percent. But the crime wave that began in the late 1960s and the sense that the criminal justice system was untrustworthy sent support for capital punishment soaring. By 1994, 80 percent of Americans said they favored the death penalty, and only 16 percent were opposed.
Since then, the numbers have softened slightly. Over the past decade, the proportion of Americans declaring themselves against capital punishment has hovered around 25 to 32 percent. The mild resurgence of opposition — caused by a decline in violent crime and by investigations raising doubts about the guilt of some death-row prisoners — has opened up political space for action.
Liberals are not going to lead this fight. Too many Democratic politicians remember how the death penalty was used in campaigns during the 1980s and ’90s, notably by George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988. They’re still petrified of looking “soft” on crime.
Moreover, winning this battle will require converting Americans who are not liberals. The good news is that many are open to persuasion. Gallup polling shows that support for capital punishment drops sharply when respondents are offered the alternative of “life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole.” When Gallup presented this option in its 2010 survey, only 49 percent chose the death penalty; 46 percent preferred life without parole.
And a survey last year for the Death Penalty Information Center by Lake Research Partners showed that if a variety of alternatives were offered (including life without parole plus restitution to victims’ families), respondents’ hard support for the death penalty was driven down to 33 percent.
If a majority is open to persuasion, the best persuaders will be conservatives, particularly religious conservatives and abortion opponents, who have moral objections to the state-sanctioned taking of life or see the grave moral hazard involved in the risk of executing an innocent person.
Despite the cheering for executions at a recent GOP debate, there are still conservatives who are standing up against the death penalty. In Ohio this summer, state Rep. Terry Blair, a Republican and a staunch foe of abortion, declared flatly: “I don’t think we have any business in taking another person’s life, even for what we call a legal purpose or what we might refer to as a justified purpose.”
Last week, Don Heller, who wrote the 1978 ballot initiative that reinstated the death penalty in California, explained in the Los Angeles Daily News why he had changed his mind. “Life without parole protects public safety better than a death sentence,” he wrote. “It’s a lot cheaper, it keeps dangerous men and women locked up forever, and mistakes can be fixed.”
The most moving testimony against Troy Davis’s execution came from a group of former corrections officials who, as they wrote, “have had direct involvement in executions.”
“No one has the right to ask a public servant to take on a lifelong sentence of nagging doubt, and for some of us, shame and guilt,” they said. “Should our justice system be causing so much harm to so many people when there is an alternative?”
Political ideology has built a thick wall that blocks us from acknowledging that some of the choices we face are tragic. Perhaps we can make an exception in this case and have a quiet conversation about whether our death-penalty system really speaks for our best selves. And I thank those conservatives, right-to-lifers, libertarians and prison officials who, more than anyone else, might make such a dialogue possible.
By: E. J. Dionne, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 25, 2011
When you visit Atlanta, ask about the death of Troy Davis, an execution by lethal injection as miles of people across land and sea kept a vigil until it came to pass at 11:08 p.m. last Wednesday evening.
Nice to know law and order—or do I mean lynch law and order?—prevails in the stubborn deep South, whatever the world thinks. Davis was put to death despite a slew of supporters, including dignitaries and law enforcement experts, who found shades of reasonable doubt in his murder case.
In a stroke of amazing timing and relevance, Georgia’s capital city is the setting of a tragical musical, Parade, based on a true story of a 1915 lynching. I just saw the brilliant production on opening night at Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street here in Washington—the very spot where Abraham Lincoln was shot at close range, by someone he never saw coming in the dark. A vengeful son of the South, an actor, played a Shakespearean scene for all he was worth—MacBeth, Lincoln’s favorite.
On that tragic April night, Lincoln was heartily enjoying a comedy. Similarly, all seems bright at first in this Ford’s Theatre play. Parade’s exuberant ensemble charms with spring songs, costumes, and revelry as the curtain opens on Atlanta’s celebration of “Confederate Memorial Day” in April 1913. But the holiday itself reveals the defiance of Atlanta’s white society, keeping the anti-Yankee candles burning.
The theatre director, Paul R. Tetreault, expertly captures the tableau of a wounded world that tells itself, over and over, that it was never vanquished, despite the festering sore of the Recent Unpleasantness.
An old guard culture, hostile to outsiders, was the downfall for a Jewish New Yorker in his early 30s, Leo Frank, who made a good living as a factory superintendent. He was accused and arrested of a gruesome child murder. Playwright Alfred Uhry, author of Driving Miss Daisy, wrote the book for the Broadway play, launched onstage in 1998. Uhry has family ties to the story, in true Southern storytelling style. There are no secrets down there, except the ones they choose to tell years later.
Parade is no picnic as it wends its way through the Southern justice system on a murder case that became a national cause, like the Davis case. Frank was found guilty of fatally strangling a girl worker in his pencil factory. When he was sentenced to hang, there was an outcry from quarters who felt a virulent strain of anti-Yankee anti-Semitism played a part in the verdict.
The governor of Georgia a century ago, John Slaton, went against the will of Atlanta’s townspeople. His character, portrayed by Stephen F. Schmidt, exhibits courage and pathos, clear about the consequences of bucking the establishment. Governor Slaton reviews the conflicting evidence in Frank’s case and grants him clemency: life imprisonment instead of death by the state’s hand. That is precisely what Georgia state officials refused to do for Troy Davis.
Lead actor Euan Morton telegraphs Frank’s desperate plight with impressive restraint. Jenny Fellner, the actress who plays his wife Lucille, sparkles onstage with her singing voice and her journey to loving her husband, locked up and alone, more than she ever did.
Relentlessly, the end closes in. A well-connected mob of white men break into the jail where Frank is held, to take him for a long night ride. It was a well-planned thing. In the show as in life, the hooded men string Frank up—as he prays in Hebrew—and hang him, with picture postcards to show for it all. Very nice.
So if you get to Marietta, ask them about the tree where Frank was hanged. Yes, Georgia has lots of colorful local history, and the fun part is trying to see where the past ends and the present begins. Both the Davis and Frank convictions were reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied relief or mercy in both cases. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famous justice, scolded Georgia for what he called a form of “lynch law” in Frank’s trial. But he was a damn Yankee in the minority.
Tetreault and others chose this timely tale to inaugurate The Lincoln Legacy Project, an initiative to spark a national dialogue on overcoming violence based on hate or bigotry. Parade’s history lesson could not be more sobering. Early in the 20th century, lynchings of black men were at an all-time high in the Southern states (including Maryland.) This was a spur to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Ari Roth of Theater J, a partner in co-producing the play, notes Frank met the same fate as so many black men at the hands of mobs. Parade, Roth said, is a “galvanizing reminder of what can go wrong in our country when hate speech and raging angers aren’t tempered and set to rest.”
Amen. And let the conversation begin.
By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, September 26, 2011
Harsh state judicial campaigns financed by ever larger amounts of special interest money are eating away at public faith in judicial impartiality. There are few places where the spectacle is more shameful than Wisconsin, where over-the-top campaigning, self-interested rulings, and a complete breakdown of courthouse collegiality and ethics is destroying trust in its Supreme Court.
On Monday, a special prosecutor was named to investigate an altercation between two justices on opposite sides of the court’s bitter ideological divide. Ann Walsh Bradley, a member of the court’s liberal wing, has charged that David Prosser, a conservative, put her in a chokehold during a heated exchange shortly before the court upheld the new state law eliminating most collective-bargaining rights for public employees.
Justice Prosser has disputed Justice Bradley’s version of what occurred, and the facts remain unclear. What is certain is that Justice Prosser should have recused himself from that ruling. His vote to uphold the law occurred shortly after his re-election campaign in which he benefited from heavy anti-union independent spending.
Justice Prosser won the April election by a very small margin, prompting a recount. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he then raised more than $270,000 for the recount, much of it in $50,000 chunks. (The contribution limits that apply under Wisconsin’s public financing system for judicial races do not extend to recounts.) Some $75,000 of the haul was used to pay fees to a law firm led by an attorney representing conservative groups in a case challenging state campaign disclosure rules, which is scheduled to be heard by the court next month.
Given the lawyer’s role in Justice Prosser’s recent recount success, a reasonable person might well question the judge’s impartiality on that case, too. After first saying he had no intention of recusing himself, Justice Prosser on Thursday asked the parties in the campaign finance case to file memos stating their views about recusal. It should not take a formal request for him to step aside.
A contentious 4-to-3 decision by the court last month declared recusal decisions by the justices to be unreviewable. In another sign of the court’s dysfunction, the deciding vote came from Justice Patience Roggensack, whose involvement in an earlier case was the subject of the disqualification motion that the court was reviewing. Like the ruling itself, Justice Roggensack’s participation in judging her own conduct showed astounding disregard for legal ethics and every litigant’s right to impartial justice. The problems don’t even stop there. A year ago, by another 4-to-3 vote along ideological lines, the court weakened the recusal standard by adopting a rule saying that campaign fund-raising or expenditures can never be the sole basis for a judge’s disqualification. The rule was largely written by a business group that has spent lavishly in judicial campaigns.
Members of Wisconsin’s top court need to focus on restoring civility and public trust. For starters, they should scrap last year’s decision on campaign money in favor of strict disclosure requirements for lawyers and litigants. They should also adopt an appeals process for recusals, so the final decision is no longer left to the judge whose impartiality is being questioned. The court’s credibility, and justice in Wisconsin, are on the line.
By: New York Times Editorial, August 19, 2011
It was a very different Barack Obama who stood in the White House late Sunday to deliver the astounding and satisfying news that Osama bin Laden was dead. Or was it?
Obama was derided during the 2008 presidential campaign for saying he would be willing to go into Pakistan unilaterally to nab the hateful and hated leader of al Qaeda. The idea was naïve at best, diplomatically disastrous at worst, his opponents said. Obama’s calm tones, lack of swagger, and professed desire to repair relationships with the rest of the world—the Muslim world, in particular—were used as a weapon to portray him as weak, someone who would not possess the cool-headedness to destroy the most cold hearted of mass murderers. And yet, Obama, with the able help of U.S. intelligence and military minds and bodies, pulled it off brilliantly, and in a manner entirely keeping with the personage he offered during the campaign.
For most of us, the mere fact of bin Laden’s death would be enough. But the way the operation unfolded was virtually perfect: bin Laden was hunted down by U.S. forces and shot in the head—not killed in an air strike or explosion, but in a manner in which we can presume that bin Laden, in his final moments, knew that it was American troops who would personally take his life. No U.S. troops were killed, and civilian casualties (except, possibly, for the unidentified woman bin Laden used as a human shield) avoided. His body was identified by DNA, preemptively silencing any “deathers” who would circulate rumors that it was all just a public relations stunt and a lie. Bin Laden’s body was disposed of at sea—to avert the need to find a country willing to bury him, and to avoid having his grave site used as a rallying spot for al Qaeda operatives and sympathizers. He was buried quickly, in Muslim tradition, averting criticism that the United States was being insensitive to the religion. Pakistan, which Obama said cooperated in the mission, but which apparently did not know the details of it until it was done, has not accused the United States of any invasion of sovereignty.
In his White House address, the serious-faced president avoided showing any glee over bin Laden’s death, although he surely was as happy about it as the rest of America. Nor did he take a cheap political victory lap, declaring “mission accomplished” against terrorism; in fact, the president rightly warned, the nation needs to be on alert for any retaliatory attacks. He reiterated that the United States is not at war with Islam, but with terrorism. There was no comment, implicit or otherwise, that he had managed to achieve what former President Bush had failed to do—to get bin Laden. Obama had the good manners to call Bush personally to tell him of the feat, and Bush responded in his statement with grace.
Obama lacks Bush’s aggressive style and provocative rhetoric. That does not mean he is weak or was less determined to get bin Laden. And while the president had not mentioned bin Laden much in public recently, that does not mean the administration wasn’t working on it. Similarly, while the Bush administration did not manage to kill or capture bin Laden, we have no way of knowing how many major attacks the previous administration defused.
Obama on Sunday night might have shown some of his critics a side they didn’t think existed, that of a determined commander in chief. But that was exactly the approach Obama presented during the campaign. It was just that his opponents didn’t think he could pull it off. He did—and the fact that Obama is not hanging a “Mission Accomplished” banner across the East Room makes the feat even more impressive.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, May 2, 2011
In a measured East Room address late yesterday, President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden and took a somber look back at Sept. 11, 2001, a tragically beautiful day on the East Coast. A “cloudless sky” set the scene for nearly three thousand deaths and two fallen towers by the time it was done.
Listening for what the president didn’t say in speaking to the nation, I came away impressed with his choice of words. He deftly left out three of them: “war on terror.” Cutting that phrase out of the political lexicon is a graceful, silent rebuke to its authors. Never has that been seen in a clearer light as last night. It’s far from just semantic.
Even in his winning mode, Obama disowned that particular dog of war—and did not let “terror” bark. Good for him, good for the nation, good for the world. President George W. Bush and his dark side, Dick Cheney, used this vague construct constantly and carelessly from day one, while the ruins of September 11 were still smoking.
Waging a “war on terror” made the American people estranged from each other and made the whole world seem like a more dangerous place. Our initial unity after the September 11 attacks dissolved in a sea of stress and anxiety. The “war on terror” ran counter to our can-do spirit because, we heard, there was nothing we could do to fight terrorism, but go shopping. So much for sacrifices. Lots of dark acts were committed in the name of the “war on terror,” often literally in the dark and far from where we live.
As citizens, we have no full reckoning of what the “war on terror” was used to justify, no receipt for its cost in lives, U.S. treasury dollars, and our fallen place in the world community. Sunday’s late-night speech indicated Obama has given this matter serious thought and its fair due. He’s sending out signals to friends and foes alike that the Wild West doesn’t live at the White House anymore, not even on a day when he achieved Bush’s fondest dream as president. In more specific language, he simply spoke of our “war against al-Qaeda.” How sweet it was to watch and to hear his well-chosen words that steered clear of “with us or against us,” “dead or alive,” or bragging about being the greatest nation. Gloating does not become a president.
Speaking of Bush, his official statement indicated he knew “war on terror” is no longer acceptable in policy parleys, so he changed it to “fight against terrorism.” Do they have enough crow down there in Texas for him?
Save some for the prince of darkness, too.
By: Jamie Stiehm, U. S. News and World Report, May 2, 2011