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COLUMN LEFT / ROBERT SCHEER

Death Penalty: A Fashionable Idea for the '90s : Hard-liners act as if crime would go down if everyone on Death Row died tomorrow

November 06, 1994|ROBERT SCHEER | Robert Scheer is a former Times national correspondent

She was a perfect Exhibit A for the law-and-order hard-liners--young, white, vulnerable, appealing and constantly invoking the name of the Lord. Perfect, except that she now sits in a South Carolina jail accused of having killed her own tiny children.

Perfect also was the man she accused, an unidentified black male carjacker between 20 and 30 years old. Catch him and kill him is the slogan of the moment, and the nation would have rested easier if a suspect, any black suspect, had met that fate. No matter the truth, a composite of this nonexistent suspect has already been burned into our consciousness by the mass media; tried and convicted.

This was the case in Boston five years ago when a white man all but convinced police that his pregnant wife had been killed by a black male. In the end, the white fellow leaped to his death from a bridge as the police were about to arrest him for the murder. But the damage had already been done and the stereotype of black and white, good and evil perpetuated.

How many black males, or others, now sit on Death Row falsely accused of murder because, in their cases, the truth didn't come out? We have fresh evidence that there may be quite a few. Thanks to DNA testing, scores of people serving time for heinous crimes have had their convictions overturned.

Once carried out, the death sentence makes a reversal of such error irrelevant. That is one reason why Amnesty International and virtually every human-rights group in the world oppose capital punishment. They are not being softhearted or indifferent to victims' rights, but rather recognize the cold reality that the victim is sometimes the accused.

Speak of forlorn causes. I don't even know why I bother to bring this up now except that Kathleen Brown's opposition to the death penalty has been an issue in this campaign and she has failed miserably to justify it. Instead, she has insisted that hers is a personal position and that as governor she would execute with the best of them.

She points out, accurately enough, that her father as governor killed 36 people on Death Row while Republican governors in this state have only managed to do in two prisoners in the past 12 years. Evidently being in principle against the death penalty, as Pat Brown was, makes it that much more likely that you will order the cyanide to be dropped.

Gov. Pete Wilson defends his inactivity as an executioner by reference to drawn-out court appeals and insists he has the will to kill if only he could gain the legal authority. I don't doubt that.

What I do doubt is his motive in using the death penalty as a litmus test for being serious about fighting crime. Like his immigrant- and welfare-bashing, it is further evidence that he is quite willing to pollute the climate of our social discourse in the interests of advancing his own political fortunes.

This is just flag-waving to arouse the mob. He now concedes that his Proposition 187 is unenforceable and will do nothing to stop illegal immigration, just as he previously had to admit that his welfare-reform schemes cost more than they save. And he is certainly too intelligent to believe that the difference between a death penalty and a mandatory life sentence goes to the root causes of crime.

What these litmus-test issues do is distract us from the serious tasks at hand. They are a sideshow. Kill everyone on Death Row tomorrow and crime will still not go down. Pass Proposition 187 and next week Wilson's friends in agribusiness will hire just as many illegals to harvest the crop. Wipe out welfare and a new army of homeless families will choke the main arteries of our cities.

But the scare tactics and quick-fix solutions evidently have great electoral appeal. The danger is that other politicians will now rush to play these same cards. Remember candidate Bill Clinton dashing back to Little Rock to personally preside over the execution of a prisoner possessed of such limited mental capacity that he thought something pleasant was up? And our own Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whom only Michael Huffington could make appear principled, never misses an opportunity to talk up her ardent support for the death penalty and barbed wire on the border.

In the new Congress, there will be no shortage of Democrats pushing all of the irrational but tough-sounding proposals that their opponents now use to torment them. Few leaders in either party will have the courage to seriously work the problems, lest they be called softhearted liberals or, even more dastardly, moderate Republicans. In the short run, the hard-liners will win; but in the long run we, the public, will suffer.

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