Justice is a Grim Reaper in Texas

(This is a reprint of an editorial which appeared in the National Catholic Reporter February 4, 2000)

During the 1990s, 31 countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

During the 1980s, 11 countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

During the 1970s, seven countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

In all, 70 countries, including place like Cambodia (1989), Croatia (1990), Czech Republic (1990), East Timor (1999), Haiti (1987), Honduras (1956), Ireland (1990), Namibia (1990), Lithuania (1998), Nicaragua (1979), Paraguay (1992), Poland (1997), Romania (1989), South Africa (1997) and the United Kingdom (1998), no longer have a death penalty for any crime.

According to Amnesty International, another 13 have abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes and reserve it for exceptional cases such as crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstance, such as wartime.

Twenty-three countries have de facto abolished the death penalty, meaning that they retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes, but have not executed anyone in 10 years or more and/or have signed an international commitment not to carry out executions.

The bottom line: 106 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in fact for ordinary crimes, many of the m during the past quarter century. Ninety nations retain the death penalty.

Granted, not all of the places that in law or in fact have eliminated the death penalty are paragons of human rights. But it is interesting to note that apparently one of the instincts at work in countries undergoing transformation after overthrowing dictatorships—in Eastern Europe, for instance, and some countries in Latin America—was to eliminate the death penalty.

Those twin elements—achieving freedom and revoking the prerogative of the state to take lives as repayment for crimes—seem a natural fit. It is an instinct that makes sense, particularly to those who have lived under the brutality of states where violence was the normal means to maintaining the state’s interests.

In the same period during which much of the world was moving toward a degree of enlightenment on capital punishment, the United States was traveling in a different direction. Since the death penalty was reinstated as the result of a 1976 Supreme Court decision, 602 prisoners have been executed in the name of the citizens of the United States.

Of those, more than 200 have been killed in Texas, which has come to symbolize the new national lust for ultimate vengeance.

It is odd that Governor George W. Bush, who so loudly proclaims Jesus as his model, pulls a Pilate-like defense on the presidential campaign trail when asked about Texas’ status as the national leader in state-sponsored killing. He has nothing to do with the executions, he says, he is simply upholding the law.

Someone condemned to die in Texas can face “a process that has the integrity of a professional wrestling match,” wrote Attorney Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, in the July 1999 issue of The Champion, magazine of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In the elaborately documented article, Bright continues, “An accused may stand virtually defenseless—facing the death penalty, as his lawyer sleeps through trial; be condemned to die without any adversarial process to determine guilt and punishment; and be denied any post-conviction review, because a lawyer misses a deadline or fails to raise any issues.” So much for Texas law.

Texas isn’t alone—just by many measures the worst example of death penalty craziness in the extreme.

When the United States began walking in a different direction from most of the rest of the world, it took up company with some unsavory characters. Among the 90 governments that retain the death penalty are Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Rwanda, Vietnam and Yugoslavia.

State sponsored killing, it has been amply shown, does not deter crime. It just sucks the rest of us into legalized violence. The world doesn’t need more vengeance, even in the name of justice. We’re headed in the wrong direction, and it’s time to turn around.

(For more information on the death penalty situation in Texas, log onto www.natcath.org. navigate to NCR Online, then to Back Issues, then to February 4, 2000)