State-sanctioned killing is American dilemma

Legal Lynching: The Death Penalty and America’s Future, by the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., and Bruce Shapiro. New York: The New Press, 2001.

“Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” Though many Americans have come to accept this as a viable alternative to the death penalty, others remain undecided. It is for those “who have supported the death penalty in years past but now find themselves troubled by the record number of executions and the revelations of death-row frame-ups” that the Reverend Jesse Jackson and his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.), have written this book.

Last year Rep. Jackson introduced the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2001 (HR-1038), which calls for a moratorium on federal executions and the establishment of a commission to study the application of the federal death penalty. The act calls on states to consider similar moratoriums.

Legal Lynching’s short history opens in New York State, where execution entered the modern era in 1890 with the introduction of the electric chair. It traces the death penalty since the ancient Greece. Americans are not a cruel people, the authors contend, yet the United States is the only industrialized nation utilizing a punishment the rest of the world has long rejected as barbaric.

Though there is no evidence that capital punishment is a deterrent there is much to indicate gross miscarriage of justice in the charging of capital murder; in conviction; and in the execution of those so convicted. “The death penalty is imposed not for the worst crime but for the worst lawyer – and the outcome is usually a matter of economics.”

Death row prisoners had been able to count on federally funded death penalty resource centers for help in their appeals. In 1996, however, Congress ended funding effectively leaving prisoners without representation and without resources for investigation. One can only conclude that executions are often carried out simply for the crime of being poor.

Many death row residents have proven their innocence and been released – some within days or hours of their executions. This raises the distinctly uncomfortable question of the number of innocents who may have been executed for want of proper representation.

The legacy of slavery permeates the criminal justice system. A disproportionate number of members of minority groups are accused, tried, convicted and executed. This is true both in state and federal courts. “Between 1789 and 1967, the federal government executed 336 men and four women. Of those a staggering 61 percent were minorities. ... If you count only the federal executions since 1900, precisely the same margin holds: 61 percent of all federal killings ... were members of minority groups.”

While “[w]ho is sentenced to life in prison and who receives the ultimate punishment is supposed to follow from objective factors,” the authors write, “[t]he reality is that the death penalty is essentially an arbitrary punishment, a product not of blind justice, but of geography and ethnicity.”

The authors conclude that the death penalty serves “[n]ot vindication, surely, just simple and brutal vengeance, with no other social or moral purpose [whereas] .... the entire purpose of criminal law is to step between the victimizer and the victim, to substitute balanced justice for individual vengeance.” “Closure” for crime victims is theoretically brought about when the individual convicted of the murder of their loved ones is executed. The daughter of one victim disagrees: “‘I have never met anyone who healed better because of an execution.’ ... Execution, [she] is convinced, represents nothing but ‘false closure’”

The dilemma presented by the death penalty is perhaps clearest when considering the positions taken by religious organizations. Those opposed argue the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” while those in favor argue the lex talionis, “ an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The Bible provides arguments to either side as well as to the many gradations between. Unfortunately the authors do not also consider other religious texts such as the Koran, which contains equally contradictory assertions.

Finally the authors ask if the death penalty is not a deterrent, does not provide closure, is not the mandate of God, then what does it accomplish?

They also point out that it costs a great deal of money: “The Death Penalty Institute Information Center estimates that each executed prisoner costs more than $1.3 million from trial to killing, compared with $18,000 a year for incarcerating a non-death row [prisoner].”

The book’s final chapter looks to tomorrow: though the authors argue for a moratorium their real aim is the abolition of the death penalty. Nevertheless, the book is not intended for death penalty supporters but for those undecided and for death penalty opponents. Though the Jacksons’ opposition to the dealth penalty appears to be founded on the Fifth Commandment, there are many more arguments here to arm those willing to undertake the struggle to end the death penalty.

An Afterword contains the text of HR-038 and a list of national organizations that provide information and resources to those who wish to become involved.

– Julia Lutsky