The Death Penalty
By Gary Girdhari

The Giver of Life
And no one else
Has the right
To take a life.
The chance of an error
'Though slim
Creates such horror
We cannot imagine.
Who gave the right
To legitimize a crime
By extinguishing a light…
A spark of the Divine!
Why… I don't see
Custodial penalty…
All that needs be
Dispensed with mercy!

By Roopnandan Singh

Several days before, the television gurus were preparing the scene. CNN and all the major networks jockeyed for positions with their best commentators. Your eyes were glued to the set as the debates continued, pros and cons. Except for the family of the victim, of the soon-to-executed Gary Graham, and the vigilant and zealous anti-death penalty protesters, the debates became lost in abstractions, characteristic of clinical detachment. In their escalating enthusiasm, the commentators on both sides planted their feet and pulled their guards up closely, so much so that Gary Graham appeared to be lost most of the time.

George W. Bush, presidential hopeful and Governor of Texas where the execution would take place, and which boasts the dubious distinction of having had the most executions in recent history (134 in Bush's 51/2 years in office), barely came on the scene. Governor Bush, who is notorious for never granting pardon or stay of execution, always does the Pontius Pilate thing. He said that he never interfered with the work of the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles. The members are appointed by the Governor, each earning approximately $80,000 a year. One is reminded of the mocking line: "The mouth is muzzled by the food it eats." This Board is his firewall. But Mr. Bush is a benevolent man. He is quoted in the New York Times that "justice is being done." And standing on the moral high ground, he urged God to bless the victim's family, bless the Graham's family, and bless Graham.

Despite the national and international attention and all the legal acrobatics to ostensibly give credence that justice was being served, Graham, who already spent 19 of his 46 years in jail (more than half his life), was destined to die the death prescribed by Texas law. Details of the foreboding day-by-day, hour-by-hour developments were meticulously offered for the public consumption (and for ratings) via the print and electronic media—in graphic details. Many of us learned new words like intra venous, gurney, lethal injection, sodium pentathol, barbiturates, saline, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride.

So the "spotlight was on Gary Graham for an evening, but his celebrity was short-lived…." Derek Alger observed that "The Circus Convenes for an Execution… [and] the big show, the institutionalized murder of a man… didn't illuminate the issues."

Gary Graham was given lethal injection on June 22, 2000 and he died at 8:49 p.m. central time, making him the 135th person executed in Texas under Bush's gubernatorial reign. Graham was convicted on May 13, 1981 of the murder of Bobby Lambert in a parking lot. There was no direct evidence connecting him with the crime. In fact, two witnesses said that he was not the man fleeing from the crime scene, but they were not called to give evidence. However, one eyewitness claimed to have seen him through her automobile windscreen, 30-40 feet away, in the night, as he was fleeing the scene. And on this basis only, he was put to death. Some say: "The death penalty is arbitrary and capricious."

It is also known that Gary Graham's court-appointed attorney put up a poor defense. There was very little investigation. Ballistic test on the .22 found on Graham did not match the murder weapon, but this was not brought out in trial by his attorney. In addition, the two witnesses were not called. Note that court-appointed attorneys are poorly paid (e.g. in Alabama they get $20 per hour).

According to the New York Times (June 23, 2000) Gary Graham made a statement before his execution: "I die fighting for what I believe in. The truth will come out." His final words: "They are killing me tonight. They are murdering me."

The recent Columbia University study showed that most death penalty appeals fail because of poor lawyering. In a sense, the executed are paying for their own demise—they simply cannot afford to pay for competent and effective defense. With proper defense Gary Graham would have been alive today. Nay. Justice was not served!

Rev. Jessie Jackson, who witnessed the execution, said that it was "a state organized murder". Rev. Al Sharpton, who was also there is quoted in the CNN news report to say, "This is not a question of the death penalty because this man did not receive a fair trial. Therefore, neither his conviction nor his sentencing was fair. This is a debate about class, about money, about the ability to defend yourself, and about race; and America lost tonight." It is also about presidential politics.

Based on what is known, this case is a cold and cruel reminder of how an injustice can be perpetrated openly in the presence of well-known personalties such as Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, Bianca Jagger and Danny Glover—and in full view of the world—in the USA, the land of the free. It is frightening to reconcile the fact that one can be put to death, even when there are serious doubts. If and when Graham's words "The truth will come out" should come to pass, can the process be reversed? What cover-up would be strategized? What scapegoatism would be employed? And can those people live with a clear conscience? Should society continue to risk executing one more innocent person? This is one of the most powerful argument against the death penalty. The sense of liberty is very overpowering. "It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one." – Voltaire.

Nowadays, more and more, inmates on death row are exonerated because of new evidence and human rights advocacy. There are many reversals, but the following have been exposed in the press. There was the case of Gary Gauger (1993) of Illinois who was sentenced to die by lethal injection for killing his parents. (See U.S. News & World Report, 11/9/98.) The police thought they got their man because of Gauger's eccentric and odd behavior. He spent 8 months on death row until the police was convinced they got the wrong man. There is Rolando Cruz (1985) who was jailed for 10 years even though there was a confession from the real killer Brian Dugan. Perry Cobb was framed, but he spent 8 eight years in jail; Verneal Jimerson languished for 11 years because of false testimony; Dennis Williams, jailed for 16 years, was freed when some college students researched his case. The Northwestern students also helped to free Verneal Jimerson, Anthony Porter, Kenneth Adams, and Willie Raines (1996). James Richardson of Florida spent 21 years in jail having been convicted of murder. He was found innocent only after some one broke into the prosecutor's office and stole important records—records that were hidden and suppressed evidence to show Richardson's innocence. But there are many others, like Leonel Herrera who was put away by lethal injection (1993) although another person confessed to the murder. In Herrera's case the system could not wait; his court appeals had exhausted! Others whose guilt are suspect and not so lucky: Timothy Baldwin of Louisiana was wasted in 1984 and Edward Earl Johnson of Mississippi in 1987.

There are many reasons for putting an innocent person to death. Some are deliberate, and others are aberrations in the system. There are police/prosecution errors, framing of the innocent, perjured testimony, false 'eyewitness' testimony, racial bias, incompetent defense attorney and 'overzealous' police. In 1963 alone 381 homicide convictions nationwide have been thrown out because prosecutors covered up evidence of innocence, or furnished evidence knowing them to be false. Sometimes there are political pressures to solve sensitive and high profile cases quickly, and thus a number of vagaries are employed, which result in the miscarriage of justice—often when it is too late—a finality that is irreversible. (See The Wrong Man, The Atlanta Monthly, November 1999.) Sometimes, politicians play up to their constituencies; they want to portray grit and to establish a tough law-and-order reputation. Politicians like to use the word 'tough'.

With newer tools of scientific detective work, DNA analysis, Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield of the "Innocence Project" were able to secure the freedom of many after they have been convicted. DNA testing is very precise and incontestable in providing exculpatory evidence.

The U.S. is the only country in the developed world that carries out the death penalty. Many other countries administer the death penalty. Saudi Arabia beheads anyone convicted of murder (62 so far this year; 99 in 1999) according to Islamic mandate. This is conducted in a public square with a sword. (See AP International 6/28/2000.) Guyana hangs those convicted, although there are strong human rights advocates against it. The Abdool Saleem Yaseen and Noel Thomas case is the most recent celebrated one. These men have been on death row for 13 years now. In a letter in Stabroek News, Bernard Brown S.J. urged Guyana to abolish the death penalty, arguing that it is the business of God to punish or not, and noting that people (executed) could have lived good and atoning lives.

Other Caribbean countries, like Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica assume the 'tough' posture and are in favor of the death penalty. Alair Shepher of Barbados does not favor a quick return to the death penalty because he argues that the poor will be at a severe disadvantage, unable to pay for exorbitant attorney fees. Trinidad continues to sentence convicted people to hang for murder, the latest took place in 1999. Some of the countries are bending somewhat under pressure from England and human rights groups to frustrate the death penalty.

But the U.S. as a sophisticated developed country is showing no mercy. The death penalty has become a serious political issue. The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. At least 39 states approve of the death penalty. (England abolished it in 1964.) The eye-for-an-eye way ceases to be justice, but revenge in most cases, and also to expedite cases. Even minors are executed. 14-year old George Stinney was executed in the electric chair in 1944. In 1986, 17-year old Sean Sellers was executed; Joseph Cannon, age 17, in 1997 by lethal injection, over the objection of the Pope. Governor Bush overruled the Pope. Most of the juvenile convictions are unfair and the execution cruel. The safeguard and protection of the minor is being abrogated. In this regard, the U.S. finds company with Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. (See Old Enough to Die, Vanity Fair, June 1999.)

In January 2000 when Pope John Paul condemned capital punishment, he was doing so knowing that lay Catholics support the death penalty 2 to 1. (See Pope's Appeal not Enough to Bridge Divide on Executions and Other Issues, New York Times, January 29 2000.) But he recognized it as "cruel and unwarranted", and feels that invoking the Old Testament "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" may be an emotional appeal that can lead to vengeance. (Remember Gandhi admonition "An eye for an eye" can make the whole world blind. And the other words of the Bible "Vengeance is mine", sayeth the Lord.)

Now, there is the case of Juan Raul Garza, convicted 7 tears ago, and is to be executed on August 5 2000. The question has surface in that the Federal death penalty is not being applied here uniformly. (See New York Times June 23 2000.)

Does the Death Penalty Serve a Purpose for Society?

Those who would like to abolish capital punishment have several arguments in their favor:

1. Capital punishment cost more than life sentence. One case, from arrest to execution cost $1 million to $3 million, some times as high as $7 million.
2. It is racially biased. Killers of white victims are 4 to 7 times more likely to receive the death penalty than killers of blacks. Also, almost 90% of those executed were convicted of killing whites, although blacks account for over half all homicide victims in the US.
3. Capital punishment kills kids in the US, which is a human rights prohibition.
4. People are being executed regardless of their innocence. Every year 4.5 (innocent) people are convicted of capital crimes.
5. The are many cases of mistaken identity.
6. The death penalty is not a deterrent and pro death penalty people claim. In fact, there are more civilian murders: 41.6 per 100,000 people where there is the death penalty, as opposed to 21.6 per 100,000 where there is no death penalty. In the US states with death penalty, the murder rate is 8% per 100,000, and 4.4% without death penalty.
7. Most law enforcement officers believe that criminals do not think about the punishment when committing a crime.
8. The mentally incompetent are executed. Justice is nor served since they are unable to understand any of the consequences.
9. Many church people believe that the death penalty is vengeance, rather than justice. "We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing." It is not restorative justice.
10. There is a bias against the poor. Their legal representation is mostly sub-minimal and incompetent.
11. It is not a deterrent.
12. It does not restore social order.
13. There is no redeeming value in civilized society for state
sanctioned organized murder. It is bad public policy. Any error in the death penalty can never be corrected.

Concluding Remarks

Thanks to DNA tests, many inmates are being cleared. How many innocent individuals have been wrongfully executed is not know. Ronald Jones of Chicago was spared because of a wrongful conviction for rape and murder. (New York Times, May 18 2000.) Jones had 'confessed' to the murder only because the police had beaten him. "I just couldn't take it no more." Anthony Porter was exonerated 2 days before his due date in Illinois. Edgar Hope was convicted of murder in 1983. He was exonerated, making him the 14th Illinois death-row inmate to be freed since 1987. Illinois Governor George Ryan, a pro death penalty advocate, saw the light, and decided to halt executions. He wants more "certainty" that the innocent are not to be executed. (See Time, February 14 2000.) Chicago Mayor Daley blames incompetent defense attorneys, many of whom were subsequently disbarred or suspended. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Kentucky may also halt executions pending further investigations, including DNA testing.

Cruel and unnecessary punishment in a civilized world, and the thought of executing an innocent person, are strong motivating forces to call for abolishing the death penalty. This will bound to happen sooner as exculpatory evidences come to the fore with new DNA techniques. The American Bar Association in 1989 set out "Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Counsel in Death Penalty Cases". The ABA "Rules of Professional Conduct" are however just guidelines and not regulated. Otherwise, "Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional workload, [should have] a responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay". The ABA also says, "A lawyer shall not handle a legal matter which he knows or should know that he is not competent to handle." (See The Wrong man, The Atlantic Monthly, November 1999.) But the defendant's "right to be heard" according to the Supreme Court is not always helped by sleeping lawyers. One Texas Judge retorted that the "lawyer does not have to hear the case or even be conscious", opining that "The Constitution doesn't say the lawyer has to be awake."

The system is severely flawed. There is need for a complete overhaul to ensure that justice is not denied, and to come to terms with norms of present day civilization. The numerous cases of the innocent being convicted are enough to warrant abolishing the death penalty. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. observed, "Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent."

GuyanaJournal July 2000
(Gary Girdhari is the Editor of Guyana Journal. He favors abolishing capital punishment.)
Execution Methods

Will the convicted die in a humane manner, or are the machines of death geared more for exacting retribution? During Florida's now infamous electrocution of Pedro Medina on March 25, 1997, for the slaying of a police officer, the condemned's leather mask burst into flames. It was reported that blue and orange flames up to a foot long shot from the right side of Medina's head and flickered for 6 to 10 seconds.

Hanging (more than 2000 years ago)
Hanging is quick and painless when done correctly. The rope is first boiled in water to remove elasticity, and then it's installed on the gallows, where it is pulled and stretched to remove any remaining elasticity. The noose, 13 coils wrapped around a loop, is placed around the neck with the knot positioned behind the left ear. The condemned is positioned on a trap door. He wears a hood and his arms and legs are bound. The trap door is sprung by a lever and the fall causes the rope to dislocate the third or fourth vertebra. Death is instantaneous. The drop length, hence the rope length, is critical. The desired result requires 1260 ft. -lb. of force to snap the neck. If the drop is too short, the victim strangles, a horrific episode that can last up to 15 minutes. Too long a drop risks decapitation, an equally unappetizing event. To calculate the correct drop length (in feet), the equation is 1260 divided by the victim's weight.

Electric Chair
Designed in 1890 by Edwin Davis, an Auburn, New York, prison electrician, the electric chair quickly gained favor. Being killed by an "invisible force" was more humane than other methods. The condemned is strapped to the chair and attached to two electrodes. The entry electrode is a leather helmet with a brass liner, to which a saline soaked sponge previously is laced. The exit electrode is a band of brass or lead, with a soaked sponge, attached to the shaved calf. A leather mask covers the face. Electrocution is carried out in two cycles: a 208v power feed stepped up by a transformer to 1700v-1800v/5-7 amps. This initial jolt lasts 30 seconds and is followed by a low-voltage hit of 250v/1-amp for 60 seconds. The cycle is repeated after 5 seconds; the cycle starts with an 8-second 2200v-2350v blast followed by 750v-l000v for 22 seconds. The cycle is repeated immediately. High voltage kills the brain by massive depolarization of the brain and brain stem's neural structure, and by raising the brain's temperature to 138 to 140 Degrees Fahrenheit. The current also burns the internal organs. The lower-voltage shot interferes with electrical impulses to the heart, in case it is still beating.

Firing Squad (1600s)
Executions take place inside a chamber rather than against an outside wall. The condemned is strapped to a chair about 30 ft. from the shooters' partition. He is hooded and wears a dark blue jumpsuit so the bloodstains won't show. Five shooters behind the partition are armed with standard Winchester Model 94 lever-action rifles. Four are loaded with a single Winchester Silver Tip 150-grain 30-30 cartridge. This bullet expands well at short distances. The fifth rifle fires a blank. The shooters lean on a rest and fire through slits in the partition. None of the shooters knows who has the blank.

Gas Chamber
The condemned is strapped into a chair inside a airtight chamber. A remote valve flows either hydrochloric or sulfuric acid into a pan positioned underneath the chair. About X ounces of potassium cyanide salts are dropped from underneath the chair, via remote control, into the acid, producing hydrocyanic gas. Hemoglobin mediated oxygen transfer to the body's cells is inhibited, causing cellular suffocation. Death occurs in 2 to 18 minutes, often with convulsions as the body writhes for oxygen.

Lethal Injection
Lethal injection gives the impression of being the most humane. The condemned is strapped to a gurney. Two IV lines, a primary and a backup, are initiated, one in each arm. 5 grams of sodium pentathol via a 60cc syringe is administered into the IV tube. This barbiturate puts the condemned to sleep. The line is flushed with saline, then 50cc of pancuronium bromide is administered through the line, which paralyzes all the muscles except the heart. Breathing ceases. The IV line is once again flushed with saline and 50cc potassium chloride, an electrolytic interrupter, is administered. This drug blocks nerve impulses to the heart, stopping it from beating. Internally the lungs are imploding and his organs are writhing. Death usually occurs in 6 to 13 minutes.
(Condensed from Popular Mechanics, January 1998 Machines of Death.)

© Copyright. GuyanaJournal
Three Periods of Abolition

Three times in our past, anti-death penalty movements have been on the verge of success. Each time the death penalty has returned, sometimes with greater support than before.

1608: The Jamestown colony executed Captain George Kendall. For the next two centuries, death was a routine punishment across the colonies. Americans resorted to the gallows not just for murder and rape but also, depending on the colony, for such offenses as theft, idolatry, sodomy, slave-stealing, witchcraft, and blasphemy.

Early nineteenth century: Religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening bolstered the anti-death penalty.

1830s: Some states and territories passed total or near-total bans; others stopped the previously widespread practice of public executions; still other trimmed the list of capital crimes.

1845: Reformers founded the American Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment

1840s and '50s: the national showdown over slavery shoved the movement to the margins of politics. With the Civil War, death penalty foes despaired.

The assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield, and a general sense of social collapse in the Gilded Age, secured the movement's demise. Iowa and Maine, which had just recently abolished the penalty, re-established it.

1870s: Executions were taking place at a rate of 1,000 per decade.

1900s and 1910s: Abolition again emerged as part of a larger agenda, fueled by a faith in the state's capacity to improve human character and by a socially minded Christianity.

1907 to 1917: nine states abolished the death penalty and others implemented partial reforms.

1919: Race riots and labor violence gave way to a perceived crime wave during the Prohibitionist 1920s, bringing calls for a crackdown. The death penalty returned. Once more, states that had abolished capital punishment revived it.

1960s: A flurry of anti-death penalty agitation. Executions had been declining for three decades, and public support for the death penalty was at an all-time low.

Late '50s-the late '60s: Nine more states did away with capital punishment in part or in full.

Death penalty foes also adopted a new strategy of fighting in federal court. The ACLU, the NAACP defense and Education Fund, and other legal outfits appealed and many capital convictions as possible, offering a barrage of arguments about why such punishment was illegitimate.

1967: they had halted all executions–a cessation that would last ten years.

1972: The Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that all executions under the current system amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and were unconstitutional. Six hundred death-row prisoners were re-sentenced to life in prison. Death penalty foes rejoiced. In the Legal Defense Fund's headquarters, staffers partied to a rock band called "The Eighth Amendment" while Jack Greenberg, the group's president, declared that capital punishment was a thing of the past. Even Chief Justice Warren Burger, a Republican who dissented in Furman, agreed with the prediction.

States drafted new laws, twenty-eight of which passed in the next two years. Public support for the death penalty boomed, partly out of resentment toward the Supreme Court.

1976: Supreme Court case upheld a new Georgia death penalty statute, clearing the way for executions to recommence.

1977: Execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah; the numbers of death penalty victims mounted, reaching 610 in 1999: Politicians outdid each other in cheerleading for the death penalty.

The recent advent of DNA evidence, however, has offered a new, more clearly compelling case against the death penalty: the risk of executing an innocent person.
(Abridged from David Greenberg at