by Michael Arnowitt
Gov. Howard Dean has twice in the last few years stated that he is reconsidering his opposition to the death penalty. Both times followed a gruesome, nationally publicized murder and he commented: "It becomes increasingly difficult to justify not having the death penalty for cases like this." Dr. Dean would, no doubt, prove unable to literally pull the switch, but his signature as governor on a death warrant would be exactly that.
Dean's position is indicative of the new '90s view on the death penalty, which acknowledges that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder but must be used as retribution and to satisfy the victim's family.
This is a significant change ini attitude. For well over 2,000 years, the death penalty was viewed as a deterrent; executions were intentionally held in public before large crowds. Yet the history books note that at a time when pickpockets were executed, other pickpockets worked the crowd at the scaffold where their colleague was being hung. In 1866, a royal commission reported that of 167 people executed that year, 164 had witnessed an execution.
Executions were gradually withdrawn from the public eye, carried out in remote prisons before a handful of witnesses in the middle of the night. In our century, Western democracies, one by one, went further and abolished capital punishment altogether. South Africa's new government, led by ex-prisoner Nelson Mandela, declared the death penalty unconstitutional a month ago, making us the last developed nation to have the death penalty.
In the '90s, deterrence is no longer mentioned, for anyone can see that Reagan's "get tough on crime" approach failed. The United States now ranks No. 1 in the world in the percentage of its citizens in prison, yet crime and murder continue apace. Gingrich and Limbaugh have transformed people's irritation at crime into a disturbing sadism. The justification for the death penalty is now one of societal revenge.
To learn more about the death penalty, I visited George Longenecker of Marshfield. George visited several times the prison in Texas where Vermonter Robert Drew was held, and was a witness at his execution.
George described for me the "almost too polite" Texas execution process: the condemned man's last visit; the handcuffing and chaining of Bob Drrew to the floor of the white prison car for transport to "The Walls"; Bob being laid out on the death gurney (table) in a room separated by glass from the witnesses; the reaction of a young reporter for the local paper, clearly moved by Bob Drew's last words, in which he again expressed his innocence.
I brought George right up to the moment of the execution itself, but I didn't have the heart to ask him about the precise moment of death, what the French judge Falco called in 1954 "administrative murder."
Maybe this exact moment, though, the "pulling of the switch," ignored by society, is everything. The great Algerian French writer Albert Camus wrote of his father, who was so upset by a farmworker who had murdered a family that he wanted to witness the execution. He got up in the dark to go to the place of the execution amid a great crowd of people. After the execution, "he came rushing home, his face distorted, refused to talk, lay down for a moment on the bed, and suddenly began to vomit. He had just discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrase. Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body."
In recent years, the death penalty has become again a major political issue. The case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist accused of killing a Phialdelphia policeman, has engendered much controversy. He was scheduled to be executed Aug. 17, but this week the execution was stayed pending appeal. Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania told reporters he has signed the death warrant to fulfill a campaign promise, presumably to the powerful Phialdelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
When Mumia was but 14 years old, he was beaten up by eight whites after protesting at a rally for segregationist George Wallace. The FBI opened a file on Mumia one year later at age 15, as the young activist joined the Black Panther Party. The FBI file, recently obtained after a three-year legal fight, contains over 700 pages of reports, showing how the agency pursued Jamal through wiretaps, informants and spies, tracking his every move.
The young Mumia became a fine writer, speaker and journalist in newspapers and on the radio. During these years, the feds repeatedly tried to set Jamal up on various charges. A famous FBI instruction to an agent explains that since the "purpose...is to disrupt...it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge." All these attempts failed; Mumia had a completely clean record, and the FBI conceded (in their files) that Mumia was only engaged in public speaking and writing and did not display any propensity for violence.
At 4 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1981, Mumia was working as a cabdriver when he saw his brother Billy being beaten by a Philadelphia cop, Daniel Faulkner. When Jamal got out of his cab to help, both Mumia and Faulkner were shot and fell to the ground. The policeman died; Mumia, in critical condition, survived after emergency surgery. Four witnesses, all situated in different positions on the street, saw a shooter flee (they even agree as to the direction) -- this third person obviously could not have been Mumia, who was slumped over and bleeding on the curb. While Mumia's gun was a .38 caliber, Faulkner was killed by bullets from a .44. Of course, all of this did not emerge until long after the trial.
Mumia writes in his extraordinary book, "Live From Death Row," that the "rights" to a fair jury, a fair trial, and to represent oneself are not rights but privileges of the powerful and rich. Indeed, his trial would be marked throughout by bias and irregularities often faced by poor minorities in our courts. The judge was Albert Sabo, who has put more people (31) on death row than any other U.S. judge and is a member of the FOP. He stripped Mumia of his right to represent himself, while Mumia's unqualified and unprepared court-appointed attorney repeatedly sought to be relieved from the case.
The judge also allotted the defense only $150 for pre-trial expenses, a shockingly low figure. While police investigators were able to conduct 125 witness interviews, Mumia's unwilling lawyer with $150 had only located two witnesses by the time of trial. The prosecution used 11 of 15 challenges to remove black potential jurors and create a jury that had only one black in a city which is over 50 percent black. Prosecution witnesses changed their stories before, during, and after the trial, and were offered deals in exchange for testimony. One officer whose testimony would have been helpful to Mumia was conveniently "on a vacation" during the trial.
It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the trial was the successful conclusion of the government's 12-year-long campaign to silence Mumia Abu-Jamal. The judge, the jury, the witnesses and the lawyers were surely as stacked as possible to ensure his conviction and ultimately his death sentence.
From Jesus, the victim of capital punishment we know the best, to our own times, human beings have continued to prove they cannot morally wield absolute power over the life of others. We are too fallible, too imperfect; how can we decide who shall live and who shall die? Mistakes need to be correctable; our whole system of checks and balances is based on this. But we cannot resuscitate those we kill.
It will be a great day when our nation finally recognizes with Albert Camus that the death penalty is no less repulsive than the original crime, and that "this new murder, far from making amends for the harm done to the social body, adds a new blot to the first one."