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The death march.

The death penalty has lost its sting. Americans as a people are committing premeditated, state-sponsored murder at a record rate. Few seem to care -- even though the rationale for capital punishment has changed. No longer is the deterrent argument circulating, bogus as it was. Instead, we are opting for vengeance straight up.

Timothy McVeigh's sentencing came as no surprise. He's the poster boy for the death penalty. He killed 168 people and showed not an ounce of remorse. But what good will come of executing Timothy McVeigh? It won't make the next madman think twice before blowing up a building. It won't bring back those who perished in Oklahoma City. And it may not salve the psyches of the victims' families, which is an increasingly popular justification for the gallows.

Listen to Bud Welch, who lost his daughter, Julie-Marie, to McVeigh's Murrah building bombing. She was twenty-three.

"Every day for a year. I'd come by the fence that enriches the footprint of the Murrah building, where it once stood, where she died. And during the first few months after the bombing, I was not opposed to the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh," he wrote in Time magazine. "But, as time has gone on, I've tried to think this out for myself.... There's been enough bloodshed where this fence now stands. We don't need to have any more. To me the death penalty is vengeance, and vengeance doesn't really help anyone in the healing process."

The McVeigh jury, though, was stripped of anyone who might share Welch's viewpoint. During jury selection, anyone who voiced opposition to the death penalty was excused. While the Supreme Court has ruled this legal, it raises the question of whether a defendant receives a fair trial. Is it really a jury of one's peers when the 20 percent of Americans who disapprove of the death penalty are forbidden from participating?

The other procedural question the McVeigh trial raises is the question of victims testifying at sentencing. There weren't a lot of Bud Welches there. Instead, the jury heard from witness after witness who had lost loved ones to McVeigh's barbarity. This inevitably prejudiced the jury. Who would not be moved by such testimony?

But does such testimony have any place at sentencing? Again, it's settled law, but it doesn't sit well. Victims and their families cannot be dispassionate, and understandably so. Almost anyone who has been preyed upon would be tempted to seek revenge; it's human nature. Yet the purpose of a civil society is to rise above the instinctive desire for vengeance and determine what is just and humane. While in some biblical sense it might be just to exact an eye for an eye, such retribution is not humane. What's next? Chopping off the hands of those who steal?

If, as we believe, the death penalty is not appropriate for Timothy McVeigh, then it is not appropriate for anyone. Many people on death row have cases clouded with doubt; surely some are innocent. A disproportionate number are minorities. A large percentage awaiting death were not fortunate enough -- or wealthy enough -- to have had adequate legal representation.

This makes the death penalty arbitrary and capricious. It is undeniably cruel. But it is hardly unusual.

A recent story in The New York Times showed that -- in Texas, at least -- the death penalty is no big deal anymore. Why? Because they're executing so many people so fast in that state these days that people can barely keep up, much less protest.

Texas is "in the midst of a spate of executions whose pace has no parallel in the modern era of the death penalty," the Times reported. In one week in May, Texas put to death four inmates. By the end of the summer. it is scheduled to have killed more than twenty -- a record for any state in any given year.

The pace of death has quickened in Texas partly because the courts there have limited the appeals process. Other states, the Congress, and the Supreme Court are also limiting the appeals for capital crimes, so Texas may be a trendsetter in the death department.

Of all the Supreme Court's decisions that came down in June, the most incomprehensible -- and the most unpardonable -- had to do with the death penalty.

It was a case brought by Joseph O'Dell, who was found guilty of rape and murder in 1988 and was sentenced to death. The issue O'dell brought was simple: The jury had never been informed that if it didn't impose the death penalty, O'Dell would have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In fact, the prosecutor in the case said O'Dell would present a continuing danger to society if he wasn't put to death.

Two years ago, in a similar capital case, the court ruled that a defendant has a due-process right to have the jury informed that he will never be allowed out of prison if he receives a life sentence without parole instead of a death sentence.

But this June, unbelievably, the Supreme Court refused to allow O'Dell to use that precedent to gain a new sentencing hearing. In essence, the Court acknowledges that O'Dell got his rights trampled on but says he can do nothing to rectify it. He remains on death row.

This callousness to the rights of defendants, especially those on death row, is almost ghoulish. But a majority of the Court went along, including Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was the swing vote in almost every close decision this term.

Justice John Paul Stevens and three other liberals on the Court dissented. Stevens said the "right to respond to an inaccurate or misleading argument is surely a bedrock procedural element of a full and fair hearing."

But for the majority on the Court, defendants in capital cases don't deserve a full and fair hearing, at least not retroactively. If an injustice happened before the court called it an injustice, it's evidently OK.

Executions have become quotidian. They are barely covered in the local press, and merit only a small dispatch in the national press, except when something ghastlier than usual happens, as in the Florida case where a mask covering the face of the convict in the electric chair caught fire before he died. That was news because it was an oddity. Simple execution is not.

Save for a handful of tireless attorneys and a few sturdy protesters, hardly anyone takes notice. We admire those attorneys. We admire those protesters. One demonstrator at a recent execution in Texas held up a sign that read An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind. That is the direction we are headed in.
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Title Annotation:Timothy McVeigh trial and capital punishment
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 1, 1997
Previous Article:Drugs, CIA, media.
Next Article:Who is playing politics?

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