The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.

Killing in the Name of

At 8:49 EST on June 22nd, Shaka Sankofa, alias Gary Graham, alias An Innocent Man, was put to death by the State of Texas.

This, of course, is a completely indefensible action. Only an individual lacking critical areas of her or his cerebral cortex could possibly attempt justification of such an execution. Coincidentally, candidates of both main parties stepped in to defend the faulty death penalty.

George W. Bush (motto: If it sneezed, hang it!) received the most vocal attention; appropriate, since he was the party most responsible for the execution. Technically speaking, Bush had a convenient loophole: he wasn’t allowed to grant a stay of execution without the approval of the Texas parole board (motto: Screw sneezing, hang them all!), as the previous Texas governor had already granted Sankofa a stay. But any apologist who claims that the matter was out of Bush’s hands and he was powerless to do anything has to be smoking the best kind of dope. This is an election year, and Bush is governor of Texas. He is probably one of the most powerful individuals in the world at the moment. If he wanted some pissants on the parole board to rule to stay the execution of Shaka Sankofa, the man would still be alive. Bush was complicit in the murder.

Of course, Bush makes no bones about the fact that he wanted the man to die. He wasn’t pretending otherwise. “After considering all the facts, I’m confident justice is being done,” he said. With such a statement, not only does the governor piss on the considered opinion of thousands of anti-death penalty activists, he pisses on the opinion of hundreds of major news outlets, who were nearly unanimous in their conviction that Sankofa was innocent. Anyone who bothers to examine the evidence, who bothers to examine the quality of the trial, has to conclude that a serious miscarriage of justice occurred, and that the judicial system Bush defends is severely flawed.

But here’s the kicker, and you may not know this one: Al Gore also supports the death penalty.

Yes, that’s right! The Democrats! The anti-Republicans! What a surprise, they’re on the death penalty bandwagon as well. Gore follows the precedent of Clinton, who took time off during his 1992 campaign to return home to Arkansas and supervise the execution of Ricky Rector, a brain-damaged man who was unaware that he was going to be executed. Rector reportedly asked to have some of his pecan pie saved “for later”. Clinton, by executing this man, succeeded in demonstrating that he, too, could “stand tough” on crime by orchestrating state-sponsored homicide.

Gore, apparently, wishes to follow suit, and thus far has shown no sign of changing his tack on the death penalty. Unlike Bush, however, Gore doesn’t attempt to pretend the system is perfect. “I think that any honest and candid supporter of the death penalty has to acknowledge that that support comes in spite of the fact that there will inevitably be some mistakes,” he says. But thanks to the media attention Bush has received, Gore is still likely to gain support from many members of the public who don’t bother to ascertain the stance of the Democrats on the death penalty.

If anything, the situation for death-row inmates has gotten much worse under Clinton, thanks mostly to the Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996. Passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing to assure a speedy conviction for Timothy McVeigh, the Act essentially destroys due process and makes federal appeals nearly impossible. The Act was written to “provide for an effective death penalty”, i.e., kill people in the most expedient manner possible. Title I of the Act is “Habeas Corpus Reform,” and imposes a 1-year limit on filing federal appeals of state convictions, barring unconstitutional or unlawful acts on the part of the State, or the espial of new evidence that could not have been previously discovered through “due diligence” (e.g., DNA evidence was unavailable for a 10-year-old conviction, but witnesses, ballistics evidence, etc., unavailable in a state trial are no grounds for federal appeal). This guts habeas corpus and makes the presentation of new evidence in federal appeals “effectively” impossible.

In the interest of making the death penalty effective, the Act goes further in destroying the appeals process: “In a proceeding instituted by an application for a writ of habeas corpus by a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court, a determination of a factual issue made by a State court shall be presumed to be correct. The applicant shall have the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence,” i.e., in order to overturn evidence presented in State court, you must establish your innocence first.

There is one small ray of hope in the Act, which is the guarantee of effective counsel. But even that ray of hope gets crushed rather quickly: “The ineffectiveness or incompetence of counsel during Federal or State collateral post-conviction proceedings shall not be a ground for relief in a proceeding...”

The Act simply demonstrates that there is little or no desire for the pursuit of justice in capital cases, and a strong desire to impress the public with meaningless gestures. It’s just another way to play the political game, to pander to what politicians think the public wants to hear, whether or not it serves the best interest of the public. Rather than engender public debate and attempt to construct rational policy surrounding the death penalty, the government seems to be flying in the face of rationality to push for even more strong-armed, ineffective right-wing tactics. The death penalty has been steadily worsening in this country, even as it drops away internationally.

A landmark Columbia University study of death-penalty cases from 1973 to 1995 revealed that two-thirds of convictions were overturned on appeal. (Given the nature of the Effective Death Penalty and Anti-Terrorism Act, it’s likely that the success rate of appeals has gone down since then.) The study, which reviewed 4578 cases in many states, demonstrates quite clearly that the judicial process is very flawed and is in constant danger of committing grave, irreversible errors. And there is no indication that the government intends to change any of its stances regarding the death penalty or criminal justice. One would think that we were still in the Middle Ages: “The peasants are restless... Let’s give them a hanging! Everyone loves a hanging!” Fortunately, public opinion is changing rapidly, and with any luck, the vapid politicos will be smart enough to change with it. We may never know how many innocent people have died because of the intransigence of the state, but let’s hope that Shaka Sankofa is the last one.


The Thistle Volume 12, Number 2: July 4, 2000.