The death penalty is poised for a comeback. Not the practice of capital punishment itself — which is very much alive and well, especially in states such as Texas — but the political, hot-button wedge issue of sending people to death could return. And it could force President Obama to take a stand and pick a side.
Throughout modern U.S. history, the death penalty has proven a big political issue. Examples of more high-profile and controversial executions include Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who in 1953 became the first American civilians put to death for espionage charges. Ted Bundy, who confessed to murdering 30 women, was put to death in Florida in 1989. And Timothy McVeigh faced a federal execution in 2001 for his role in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which left 168 dead, including 19 children in a daycare center.
Politicians have manipulated the issue of state-sponsored killing to appear tough on crime. In 1992, Arkansas governor and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton flew home to watch the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a 40-year-old, mentally-impaired black man who was convicted of murdering a black police officer.
Clinton, who once opposed the death penalty in his youth, was influenced by events four years earlier, when then-Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis lost the 2008 election. Dukakis had appeared soft on crime when asked during a debate if he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. His response was “I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”
But lately, as a political issue, capital punishment has not received as much attention in the media. And it has largely faded from public consciousness, even as executions have continued despite troubling questions over its use, and the role of DNA evidence in exonerating the innocent. Since 1973, 138 prisoners in 26 states have been released from death row after evidence proved they were innocent, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. They spent an average of 9.8 years behind bars for a crime they did not commit.
According to Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of the world’s nations have abolished the death penalty. Most of the advanced world has done away with the practice. And the U.S. is among the top five countries that execute its citizens, putting America in league with China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The application of the death penalty in America speaks to a history of violence, particularly racial violence. It is curiously coincidental that executions are prevalent in the Southern states, the former Confederacy, where dehumanization of black folks had been accomplished through slavery, Jim Crow lynching, and unequal justice meted out by a kangaroo court system.
With poor, black and brown defendants most likely to receive a death sentence — often based on a lack of evidence, witness coercion, racial discrimination and inadequate legal representation — it is no wonder that some refer to capital punishment as “legal lynching.” And mob justice is the practical result in an inherently broken system that believes in expediency over affording due process and determining one’s guilt or innocence.
A number of recent events have once again placed executions in the forefront. For one, on September 21, Georgia is set to execute Troy Davis, who has been on death row for two decades for the 1989 killing of a police officer, despite no physical evidence tying him to the crime. Seven of the original nine witnesses in the case recanted or contradicted their stories, and three of those say their statements were coerced by the police. A coalition including the NAACP, Amnesty International, the ACLU, Color of Change and Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty delivered a petition with thousands of signatures to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles in support of Davis.
William Sessions, the FBI director under Reagan, Clinton and the elder Bush, wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution urging Georgia to stay Davis’s execution, given the doubts that permeate the case.
Meanwhile, in Texas, presidential candidate Governor Rick Perry has received increased attention these days for a number of questionable executions under his watch. Perry has executed juveniles, those lacking mental capacity and others with incompetent court-appointed lawyers, and one person who was not the shooter.
In another case, a man named Cameron Todd Willingham was killed by lethal injection for murdering his three children in a fire, despite shoddy evidence and the testimony of two psychologists who never met him.
During a recent Republican presidential debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry received applause by the crowd for his death penalty record.
“Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times,” NBC’s Brian Williams told Perry amidst applause from the audience. “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?”
“No, sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all,” Perry responded. “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.”
“What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?” Williams asked.
“I think Americans understand justice,” Perry offered. “I think Americans are clearly in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens, and it’s a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens, and if you do, you will face the ultimate justice.”
Perry was urged to halt the September 15 execution of Duane Edward Buck, and the September 20 execution of Steven Woods. Buck was given a death sentence based on the testimony of a psychologist who said that blacks are more violent, and that being black made Buck more dangerous. Woods was sentenced to death for double murder, even though his accomplice admitted to pulling the trigger.
In light of the tea party voters who vote in the GOP primaries, Perry’s death penalty record is an asset, even a virtue. Never mind that the governor, who would preach to others about Jesus and being a “pro-life” Christian without producing his credentials qualifying him to do so, appears more like Pontius Pilate to some observers. But he has a good shot at the nomination.
After all, he already flexed his dominionist bona fides before the fundamentalist GOP base. Plus, he has stolen Michele Bachmann’s thunder, and he is not Mitt Romney. And the Southern fundamentalist base is about as likely to vote for a Mormon as they are to vote for a black president they characterize as a radical Muslim socialist from Kenya. That, along with a pulse and the ability to form basic sentences, could put Perry over the top.
If Rick Perry wins his party’s nomination and goes head-to-head with President Obama in the general election, the Texas death machine may well become his Achilles Heel, potentially far worse than his right-wing pastor problem.
President Obama would serve his own cause by painting Perry as not ready for primetime and too extreme for the mainstream — a backwoods governor who is free and loose with killing folks for the sake of it, just as he threatened to lynch Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in that good ol’ Texas tradition.
“If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion,” Perry said of Bernanke on the campaign trail in Iowa.
By taking a stand against the death penalty — broken, unjust and rife with abuse — Obama would appear reasonable to so-called independents. Moreover, he would once again reveal his backbone to his Democratic base, and energize those progressives and Liberals whose enthusiasm he needs on Election Day. What better opportunity for a Nobel laureate to reaffirm his commitment to human rights? Such a stand would allow a broader national discussion on an abhorrent, barbaric practice that flies in the face of international human rights law and remains a source of global embarrassment.
Many a political career has been built on executions, not to mention the inevitable criminalization of people of color that accompanies the “tough on crime” stance. President Obama could find himself drawn into the death penalty debate via Texas Governor Perry and the Troy Davis case in Georgia. Taking the high road may change the narrative on capital punishment in America, and solidify his legacy and political fortunes as well.