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Put an End to America's Death Machine

Capital punishment: As our official killing rate climbs, our moral authority is undermined.

April 22, 1998|MIKE FARRELL | Mike Farrell, an actor and producer in Los Angeles, is co-chair of Human Rights Watch/California and president of the Death Penalty Focus of California

America's place as a leader among nations has suffered a one-two punch in recent days thanks to the politics of death, and our moral authority is on the ropes.

Last week the U.N. special rapporteur for arbitrary, summary and extrajudicial executions issued a report critical of death penalty policies in the United States. Bacre Waly Ndiaye, a Senegalese attorney and death penalty expert, criticized the U.S. death system for selectively killing the poor, disproportionately killing minorities, executing the mentally unbalanced, joining the likes of Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in killing children and undercutting an international agreement to slow the pace of executions worldwide by expanding our own rate explosively for apparently political reasons.

In his investigation--delayed for three years by administration foot-dragging and greeted by bellows of indignation from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)--Ndiaye found that "race, ethnic origin and economic status appear to be key determinants of who will and who will not receive a sentence of death." He concluded that "the imposition of death sentences in the United States continues to be marked by arbitrariness."

As if to underscore his point, here in California convicted murderer Horace E. Kelly Jr., who for 10 years has been living in a state of "bizarre delusions and hallucinations, incoherence, catatonic behavior and inappropriate affect," in the words of a prison psychiatrist, waits to be told if he's sane enough for us to kill. Kelly's sanity trial, the state's first in 47 years, finally got underway on Tuesday, after the prosecution produced 130 pages of psychiatric documents that had been "overlooked" when his "complete psychiatric record" was submitted weeks ago.

The "machinery of death," as Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun so aptly dubbed it, is running amok, and the cost of its operation grows daily. Blackmun realized that such a system, through human error, misuse, social inequality, political ambition and venality, becomes a nonsense organ grinding up the innocent with the guilty, the mentally impaired with the morally impacted.

Blackmun's awakening, at a time of steady erosion of the Supreme Court's willingness to stand as a firewall for humanity, preceded by two years the American Bar Assn.'s 1997 call for a moratorium on state killing. Bar analysts, embarrassed by the International Commission of Jurists' 1996 exclamation of despair at the politics of death in America, drafted a call to put the machine in neutral and stop the killing at least temporarily.

But the machine grinds on undaunted, fueled by political ambition and electioneering rhetoric. "It's the will of the people" goes the chant, as would-be leaders heed a vocal minority that hungers for blood.

How long can we afford to maintain this damnable machine? Is moral and ethical deadening a requisite part of the American dream? Since a majority of citizens in every poll offering the choice expresses a preference for life without parole to the death penalty, where is the leader with the guts to admit that Blackmun was right?

It's time to pull the plug on the machinery of death and revive an America that leads by example.

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