Einer der eher unangenehmen Aspekte der USA ist die Neigung, Leute hinzurichten. Unser USA-Korrespondent Thomas Adcock beschäftigt sich im Zuge seiner präzisen USA-Analysen heute und in der nächsten CrimeMag-Ausgabe mit dieser Art staatlicher Gewalt – historisch, aktuell und im internationalen Kontext.
How the Government Commits
By Thomas Adcock
The American experience in capital punishment is a kaleidoscope of legislative vogue, adaptive judicial wisdom, religion (stern and merciful), political passion and race—played out against the backdrop of “evolving standards of decency,” a debatable progressive impulse suggested by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 in the matter of Trop v. Dulles.
As of March 2013, death penalty statutes remain on the books in thirty-two of America’s fifty states. By comparison, of the forty-nine independent nations of Europe affiliated with the United Nations, only Belarus still executes convicted criminals.
By comparison, of the forty-nine independent nations of Europe affiliated with the United Nations, only Belarus still executes convicted criminals.
Lethal injection is the most common tool for public executioners in America, having recently displaced the popularity of electrocution. Prisoners put to death in the manner a veterinarian would kill a cat is seen as more humane than strapping them into a chair and pumping two thousand volts of skin-searing electricity into their brains.
Here in the forested mountains and lakes of upstate New York, Professor John H. Blume of Cornell Law School has created the Death Penalty Project as both an academic and litigation vehicle to finally put an end to such government violence. A former student at Yale University’s School of Divinity before changing his life’s direction and becoming a lawyer, Mr. Blume is fervently devoted to his merciful pursuit.
Quite possibly, he may live long enough to see his mission completed.
In four centuries of life with the death penalty, Americans have been without legal means of dispatching society’s killers, traitors and lesser miscreants for a scant four years—from 1972 when the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia, until reinstating it in 1976 by way of Gregg v. Georgia, a decision said to inspire a new generation of what were said to be more equitable death penalty statutes.
At one time or another, all state courts have held the death penalty to be right and proper—and a means of discouraging potential murderers, surely one of the all-time most preposterous juridical theories. Over time, some legislatures did away with executions altogether, altered means and conditions, or imposed moratoria until amendments designed to avoid constitutional or procedural challenge could be affixed to the desired fatal effect.
Notwithstanding the Supreme Court and the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting “cruel or unusual” punishment, American-style execution is nowadays seen by virtually all the developed world as inherently cruel.
In October of 2009, the European Union called on the United States to “heed domestic and international calls to bring an end to the death penalty [and] admit that [its] use has been a failed experiment with a very high cost in human suffering and inestimable damage to the country’s standing and image in the world as a beacon for human rights and democratic values.” The E.U. is still awaiting response from Washington.
Meanwhile, and despite efforts by Professor Blume and his many allies, state and federal executions continue apace in the U.S. And circumstances leading to executions remain as unusual as ever, particularly in the rearview mirror of history:
• The theft of grapes, unauthorized slaughter of chickens and commerce between English settlers and Indians were subject to the death penalty under the “Divine, Moral and Martial Laws” of 1612, decreed by Sir Thomas Dale, governor of colonial Virginia.
• Denying the “true God” and slapping one’s mother or father were punishable by death under the “Duke’s Laws” of New York, enacted by colonial lawmakers in 1665.
• Between May of 1692 and January of 1693, the Massachusetts Court of Oyer and Terminer—and its successor, the Superior Court of Judicature—executed nineteen men and women based on testimony that their spectral “witch” shapes appeared in the dreams of righteous accusers. Thirteen other alleged witches died on Salem’s death row while waiting to be either hanged or crushed.
First Let Us Kill the ‘Fool Christian’
The first recorded American execution occurred in 1608 when a firing squad took aim at George Kendall, a captain of First Colonial Army of Virginia and a member of the quarrelsome Jamestown Council.
According to an account in “History of Peter Kandel and Descendants” by William E. Kandel (Selby Publishing, Kokomo, Ind., 1989), Captain Kendall publicly accused Jamestown Council President John Ratcliff of “brutish and inhuman acts with Indian girls.” Ratcliff, armed with religious disdain and the legal authority of personal fiat, responded by damning Kendall as “one of those fool Christians,” as well as a spy for Spain in the cause of wresting the Virginia colony from England.
Presently, the Criminal Justice Project of the venerable National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) counts more than three thousand men and women awaiting execution in more than two dozen states.
The Brooklyn-based Equal Justice USA, a death penalty abolitionist organization, reports six hundred and eighty-two executions carried out since the decision thirty-four years ago in Gregg.
Texas accounts for most post-Gregg executions, having strapped four hundred and forty-one prisoners to gurneys and injecting them with a cocktail of chemicals: thiopental sodium (a barbiturate used by surgeons to effect a medically induced coma), pavulon (a curare derivative that blocks lungs from functioning) and, potassium chloride (a heart-cramping caustic fluid). In the state of Virginia, which is second to Texas in execution rates, the condemned may choose between lethal injection and “Old Sparky,” a common reference to the old-fashioned electric chair.
Forty-four percent of the nation’s death row inmates are white, according to the NAACP headcount. Forty-two percent are black, this despite blacks comprising only twelve percent of the U.S. population. Twelve percent of the condemned are Latino, three points below the population ratio. Asian Americans and Native Americans constitute one percent each.
Ninety-eight percent of death row inmates are male, per NAACP data. Better than three-quarters were subjected to brutality at some point in their lives. Virtually all have minimal educations and were born into poverty.
A Suburban Exception to the Rule
On the reasonable assumption that thiopental sodium, pavulon and potassium chloride will be pumped into her veins in the near future, Professor Amy Bishop skews a socio-economic profile—perhaps offering comfort to execution advocates sensitive to death row demographics.
A neurobiologist with a Harvard PhD, Ms. Bishop was raised in the Boston suburb of Braintree (population thirty four thousand, according to the 2000 Census, and ninety-four percent white). The Bishop household was affluent, though not without sorrows.
In 1986, when she was nineteen, Amy Bishop killed her brother with a shotgun. Police consigned the matter to an accident file. Then in 1993 as a student at the Harvard Medical School, the Federal Bureau of Investigation questioned Ms. Bishop in connection with a pipe bomb mailed to her professor’s home. The bomb failed to detonate.
On February 12 of 2011, Ms. Bishop was charged with murdering three colleagues at the University of Alabama and wounding as many others when she opened fire with a nine-millimeter pistol during a faculty meeting to determine her troubled petition for academic tenure. Professor Bishop is white. Of her three dead colleagues, two are African American. The third was born in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, India. Among the wounded, two were white and one Latino.
Soon after the campus shootings in Alabama, the website “Jack & Jill Politics: A Black Bourgeoisie Perspective on U.S. Politics” cut to the race chase. Under the banner “Sometimes White Privilege Just Comes Along and Smacks You Upside the Head,” readers imagined all deliberate speed of the criminal justice system were Amy Bishop a person of color.
Race, the Root of (Nearly) All
Like other significant dynamics of American society, race is profoundly at issue in the context of capital punishment. Consider:
• In his review of criminal sentencing procedure in Georgia, for publication by the American Bar Association (ABA), Professor David Baldus of the University of Iowa College of Law found that prosecutors sought the death penalty for seventy percent of black defendants accused of killing whites, but only fifteen percent of black defendants charged with same-race murder.
• A 1998 survey published in the Cornell Law Review found that ninety-eight percent of lead prosecutors in death penalty states were white, one percent black.
• The U.S. General Accounting Office reported in 1990 “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in charging, sentencing and imposition of the death penalty.“
• A U.S. Justice Department study of federal capital cases from 1995 to 2000 found that seventy-four percent of defendants were non-white, causing former Attorney General Janet Reno to say she was “sorely troubled” by the evident disparity.
• In dissenting from the 1994 Supreme Court decision in Callins v. Collins, the late Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote, “Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.”
Thomas Adcock is American correspondent for CulturMag. Zum Essay: Suicide by Stupidity: How the Republican Party is Killing Itself.