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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Executions Put State and Nation on the Killing Stage

California's proposals to increase crimes eligible for the death penalty help make the

December 22, 1999|MIKE FARRELL | Mike Farrell, co-chair of Human Rights Watch in California and president of Death Penalty Focus, is an actor currently appearing in the NBC television series "Providence."

U.S. a human rights pariah.

Next March, Californians will vote on Propositions 18 and 21, which would expand the number of categories of crimes eligible for the death penalty. This comes at a time when the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction, and the United States' use of capital punishment is turning our nation into an international human rights pariah. Consider:

* In Norway, members of Amnesty International write protests to President Clinton, urging him to stop states like California from executing juvenile offenders and the mentally impaired.

* In Spain, demonstrators chant and wave signs in front of the American Embassy, protesting the impending U.S. execution of a Spanish citizen, condemned without being granted his guaranteed right to meet with his nation's consul.

* Leaders of Germany, Honduras, Canada, Paraguay and Thailand complain to individual state governors, the Department of State and the White House about their citizens being executed here without being granted their treaty-guaranteed rights.

* The Inter-American Court on Human Rights rules against the U.S. in a suit on the same issue.

* The 15-member European Union passes a resolution calling for the immediate global abolition of the death penalty, and it specifically calls on all states within the U.S. to do so.

* Amnesty International includes the U.S. on its list of human rights violators, putting us in the company of Algeria, Cambodia and Turkey for, among other things, our increasing use of state killing.

The U.S. is now the most flagrant transgressor of the international ban on executing juvenile offenders. In 1999, Oklahoma executed Sean Sellers, 16 years old at the time of his crime. Texas has executed seven juvenile offenders since 1985. Today, more than 70 youth offenders are on death row in the U.S. In this pursuit, which puts us in the company of Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, we have defied consecutive unanimous rulings from the International Court of Justice, the world's highest judicial body, which called for an end to the execution of minors.

Twenty-six U.S. states, including California, allow the execution of mentally retarded offenders.

Western Europe has long since stopped killing its prisoners. The trend is spreading eastward, with recent bans by Bulgaria and Albania bringing the number of countries that have stopped implementing the death penalty to an all-time high of 106. This year, Russia commuted the death sentences of all 700 of its condemned prisoners to life in prison. Even Turkey is reconsidering the use of state killing after an overture from the European Union regarding admission.

Some of the world's most-respected leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called for an end to the death penalty. Last week, Pope John Paul II urged "all those in authority to reach an international consensus on the abolition of the death penalty" in 2000.

The appeals have fallen on deaf ears. More than 100 individuals will be executed in the U.S. by the end of 1999, a rate eerily consistent with the pace maintained from 1930 to 1967, when 3,859 prisoners were killed. If California expands its categories of eligibility for the death penalty, this figure will surely rise, moving us back toward the 19th century.

Along with foreign governments and international human rights groups, the American press is now growing impatient with the death penalty, with major news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times, Kansas City Star, San Francisco Examiner, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, New York Times and USA Today on the record opposing capital punishment. "Executions are barbaric, discriminatory, arbitrary and more costly than life imprisonment," editors of the St. Louis Post Dispatch opined recently. "They do not deter crime. They do not resurrect victims. They force us to play God and make choices that no individual, and no government, has any business making."

And they claim innocent lives. The Chicago Tribune recently examined all 285 death penalty convictions in Illinois since capital punishment was restored 22 years ago. In almost half of those cases--127--new trials or sentences were ordered because of "unprofessionalism, imprecision and bias" in prosecution. Twelve of the defendants were exonerated, and 74 others received a lesser sentence. How many of those already executed were victims of the same injustices? the Tribune asked.

Long regarded as an international trendsetter on social and political issues--yet with more than 555 prisoners already on death row, the most in the country--California now finds itself clearly in the backwater of human rights. The tragedy, of course, is that state-sanctioned killing is unnecessary. It's well known that states that don't practice capital punishment have lower murder rates than those that do. A safer, more effective, less expensive and far less brutal alternative exists in 34 states and the District of Columbia: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Life sentences without parole protect public safety while sparing us the barbarity of killing our own. It teaches our children that violence will be punished, but not by emulating the violent. This seems eminently more consistent with American ideals than continuing to share the killing stage with some of the world's worst human rights violators.

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