Printer Friendly

Violence at the top.

Fielding Dawson, a reader in New York City who is passionately concerned - as we all should be - about the crime of capital punishment, wrote a letter to Bill Clinton asking the President to do what he could to spare the life of Gary Graham, a young African-American who is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas on August 17.

According to Leigh Dingerson, executive director of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, "Graham could be considered a poster-person for the abolition movement. No case in recent memory has raised more clearly the intrinsic failures of the death penalty." (Graham was one of the founders of a newspaper called Endeavor: Live Voices from Death Row, on which we reported in the June 1990 issue of The Progressive.)

There is substantial doubt that Graham committed the murder of which he was convicted twelve years ago, but he failed to win even a hearing on new evidence submitted by his lawyers. Among those who have asked for clemency are the wife and stepdaughter of Graham's supposed victim. Graham was seventeen at the time of the crime, and his age, his race, and the failure of the judicial process are all reasons for challenging the death sentence.

"Yet Governor Ann Richards has refused to budge," Dingerson wrote recently.

"In fact, Governor Richards has now carried out the executions of more men than any governor in the country in the post-Furman era. She's taken the politics of death to a new level, with barely a squeak of protest from the Democratic Party that adores her or the many progressive communities which elected her."

Furman was the 1972 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled against the "arbitrary and freakish" application of the death penalty. It took about four years - four years blessedly free of state-imposed homicide - for state legislatures to devise and enact capital-punishment statutes that would meet the Supreme Court's test of constitutionality. There has been an orgy of executions ever since.

Bill Clinton's reply to Fielding Dawson - on White House stationery and bearing what appears to be the President's signature - begins by asserting, "In state cases such as Gary Graham's, there is no legal basis for the President to intervene to prevent an execution. National involvement in state cases is constrained by our federal system."

That's true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. The President has an opportunity and an obligation - as he has acknowledged on other occasions and in other contexts - to speak out on issues of moral significance. Yet this is how Clinton addressed, in his letter to Fielding Dawson, the larger question of the state's power to snuff out a human life:

"Executions raise extremely difficult moral and ethical issues. People who hold sincere and profound beliefs often differ on issues concerning life and death. I have spent countless hours myself contemplating the justifications for the state to take a human life. My own decision to uphold death sentences in Arkansas was reached only after much prayer, study, and consultation."

Thanks to Marshall Frady's excruciatingly detailed account in The New Yorker early this year, we know all about the "countless hours" Clinton spent in "prayer, study, and consultation" before sending Ricky Ray Rector, a severely mentally impaired African-American, to his death in the midst of the 1992 Presidential primary campaign. The governor of Arkansas did everything but convene a focus group to see how the execution would play with the voters.

Unfortunately, executions generally play well. In some instances, bloodthirsty crowds have gathered outside prison walls to celebrate an execution. Law-enforcement officials view their horrible task with equanimity: When Frederick Lashley, another brain-damaged convict who committed his capital offense when he was seventeen, was put to death in Missouri late in July, the state's attorney general, Jay Nixon, said, "We feel very comfortable with what the jury and judge decided."

Very comfortable.

Perhaps some of the folks who have been working themselves into a lather about fictitious violence on television programs and in rap lyrics ought to devote some thought to the real violence that pervades our political system - starting at the top.
COPYRIGHT 1993 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Bill Clinton and the death penalty
Author:Knoll, Erwin
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Make room for Daddy.
Next Article:Profile in cowardice.

Related Articles
Not in my name.
Crime on the Hill.
America's new enemy.
A matter of life and death.
Capital punishment and violence.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters