Second Thoughts on the Death Penalty

McVeigh Case Aside, Support for Executions Is Declining

TERRE HAUTE, Indiana, MAY 26, 2001 ( The blunders that led to the delay of Timothy McVeigh´s execution are rekindling the long-standing debate over the death penalty in America.

The discovery that the FBI had failed to turn over to defense lawyers thousands of pages of reports forced U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to put off the execution, scheduled for May 16.

Even though it appears that the missing documents were not vital to McVeigh´s defense, who openly admits his responsibility for the bombing of the federal government building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, his lawyers have demanded time to examine them and reserved the right to seek a retrial.

Time magazine, in its May 21 issue, noted that the latest evidence of errors in the judicial system comes shortly after the announcement of an investigation into mistakes made by a police chemist, Joyce Gilchrist, also from Oklahoma. Authorities are now investigating all cases in which she was involved, including 23 death sentences.

McVeigh was already at the center of attention before the foul-up over the documents. About 300 family members of the bombing victims asked to witness the execution; this led to the decision to transmit it over closed-circuit television. About 1,600 reporters were expected at the Indiana federal prison for the execution.

The McVeigh case stands out for several reasons: It will be the first federal execution in 38 years; it involved 168 victims; and the condemned man seems indifferent to the lives lost — he referred to the deaths of the 19 children in the blast as “collateral damage.”

Behind the numbers

Public opinion is in favor of executing McVeigh, polls indicate. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, May 6, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll indicates that of the 38% of Americans who say they generally oppose the death penalty, more than half think that McVeigh should be executed. Overall, more than 81% say McVeigh should be executed.

Yet, the overwhelming support for McVeigh´s execution masks the reality of declining public approval of capital punishment, the Washington Post reported May 3. About half of all respondents surveyed by the Post favored life in prison over the death penalty. A similar proportion also supported halting all executions until it can be determined that capital punishment is being applied fairly across the country.

The Post-ABC News poll found that support for the death penalty has declined in the wake of falling crime rates and the highly publicized releases of death row inmates who were convicted of murders they did not commit. Overall, 63% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, but this is down from 77% five years ago.

Asked which punishment they would most prefer for convicted murderers — the death penalty or life in prison without parole — support for legal executions fell even further. Only 46% supported capital punishment, while 45% favored life in prison.

Around the world

Amnesty International says 75 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, while another 13 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes. Counting those nations where capital punishment remains on the books but is no longer practiced, a total of 108 countries have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. During the last decade, three countries a year, on average, have abolished the death penalty.

Last year at least 1,457 prisoners were executed in 27 countries, and 3,058 people were sentenced to death in 65 countries, reports Amnesty International. Of the executions, 88% took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. China alone posted 1,000 executions; Saudi Arabia, 123; the United States, 85; Iran, at least 75. In addition, Amnesty says hundreds of executions were reported in Iraq but many of them may have been extrajudicial.

The U.S. executions brought to 683 the total number executed since the resumption of the death penalty in 1977. More than 3,700 prisoners were under a death sentence as of Jan. 1.

The international campaign against the death penalty is directed against the United States, even though other countries are responsible for a greater number of executions. On May 20 Chinese authorities executed at least 29 people, the Associated Press reported the same day. During recent weeks hundreds of executions have occurred as part of a crackdown on crime.

The AP reported May 18 that the Strike Hard campaign had resulted in 801 executions, by one estimate. Human rights groups have spoken of more than 500 executions since April 11. The estimate of 801 comes from a Western diplomat who counted the deaths reported in the state media in final three weeks of April alone. China keeps nationwide execution figures a secret and has not said how many have been killed.

The international press has made remarkably little attention to this latest wave of executions in China. Governments have also been very silent about this as well. Last year, according to Time, the presidency of the European Union, sent the then governor of Texas, George W. Bush, no fewer than eight letters asking for pardons of death-row prisoners. However, the European Union has not said anything about the recent events in China, at least publicly.

Another country that has escaped the attention of the anti-death penalty campaigners is Japan. In a rare report on the situation, the Washington Post on May 2 recounted the suffering of Sakae Menda, who after 34 years on death row was freed when the courts admitted he had been condemned for a crime he did not commit.

Fifty men and four women now await execution in Japan. The only warning they will receive of their death will be the appearance at their cell one morning of guards who will take them to the execution chamber.

The Justice Ministry keeps secret the names of those selected for execution and gives no explanation for the choice. Even when all legal processes are finished, inmates spend years or decades not knowing if they are living their last day. Human rights groups condemn this uncertainty. “It´s inhumane. They go through torture every day,” said Sayoko Kikuchi, head of an abolitionist group in Tokyo called Rescue!

The Post reported that the Justice Ministry has repeatedly passed over certain prisoners until they are old and frail, in tacit admission that their sentence may have been wrong. Nearly 20 inmates have been on death row for more than a decade. At least 16 are over age 60; the eldest, 83, has been under a death sentence since 1966.

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