Editorial: Death Penalties 6/15/01

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David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected]

The execution of Timothy McVeigh, the first official death penalty carried out by the federal government since 1963, tended to overshadow another federal death penalty case in its late stages. Juan Raul Garza, a Texan who was convicted of marijuana trafficking and ordering three killings in the course of doing business. Garza will face lethal injection this coming Tuesday, if last-minute maneuverings by his attorneys and advocates fail to forestall or mitigate his sentence.

A coalition of religious and civil rights leaders have asked President Bush to order a moratorium on federal executions, citing racial and ethnic bias in application of the federal death penalty. Garza, who is Mexican-American, would not have been statistically likely to receive the death penalty if he were white, they say, and have asked that his sentence be commuted to life in prison. US Attorney General John Ashcroft claims that a Justice Department report issued last week exonerates the federal government of such charges, but Garza's attorneys dispute the findings, pointing to incomplete and misleading data used in the study to reach that conclusions.

Certainly, any thinking person ought to be skeptical of any claims made by the Justice Department, ever. After all, DOJ prosecutors couldn't even obey the law themselves while prosecuting the McVeigh case, arguably the most high-profile, scrutinized case in the nation's history. It was shocking to see thousands of documents from the case uncovered at the last minute, illegally withheld from the defense during all the years of the trial. Such a violation, be it deliberate or accidental, ought to infuriate parties on both sides of the death penalty debate: the defendant's right to a fair trial was violated, in the process placing the conviction itself at risk.

Garza's case was also marred by misconduct, to the point where the trial was actually protested by the Organization of American States. OAS claimed that federal prosecutors violated international human rights covenants in the penalty phase of Garza's trial by asking the jury to consider murders for which he was never tried, let alone convicted, in determining his penalty -- a penalty which in this case turned out to be death.

There are only two ways that government misconduct in the criminal justice system can be deterred. One way is to void convictions or sentences and force the government to retry tainted cases, if they still have a legal basis with which to do so. The other way is to punish those officials who have committed the misconduct, if not through criminal prosecution or judicial sanction, then at least through firings or demotions where the violations reach a sufficiently serious level.

In both of these two first federal death penalties in nearly 40 years, the misconduct -- deliberate or accidental in McVeigh's case, almost certainly deliberate in Garza's -- reaches that level. Yet in neither case have the offending DOJ personnel been sanctioned, or if they have it hasn't been reported. How can Americans place their trust in our criminal justice system, when misconduct occurs so routinely even in the most important cases, but goes unpunished?

Can we ever be secure as a society that innocent people are never sent wrongfully to the death chambers, when ethics violations in the criminal justice system are evidently so pervasive and tolerated? The answer is probably no, and the same concern ought to apply to the living death of multi-year and decade sentences given so casually to tens of thousands of nonviolent drug law violators every year. Among those incarcerated in our nation's prisons and jails are no small number who in truth are innocent. In many cases the circumstances are so shocking as to make one wonder if we live in a banana republic as opposed to the so-called land of the free.

Last but not least are the de facto extra-judicial executions, the often-innocent people who never make it to trial, but are killed by police engaged in no-knock drug raids. Certainly, the Lebanon, Tennessee police officers who killed the 62-year old John Adams had no way to be sure he was guilty -- as evidenced by the fact that he wasn't guilty and they had broken down the wrong door entirely. But that didn't stop them from using extraordinarily reckless tactics in entering his home, initiating the violent confrontation that left Adams dead. Of course, death wouldn't have been the judicial penalty even if he did have drugs in his home.

The killing of John Adams is only one of many, many such unnecessary drug war tragedies. His case is an exception in that his killer did get sent to trial before being acquitted. Usually, police who kill receive an unreasonable benefit of the doubt. Or perhaps it is not always unreasonable, and police and their occasional victims are all victims of a drug war and paramilitarized policing system gone mad. In this view, perhaps the people at the top who order and encourage these reckless tactics like no-knock warrants are the truly guilty parties. But who can bring them to justice?

It is time for the double standards to end.

-- END --
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Issue #190, 6/15/01 Dedication: Peter McWilliams, One-Year Later | Editorial: Death Penalties | Supreme Court Nixes Warrantless Heat-Sensor Searches, Oregon Grow-Op Case Updates Fourth Amendment to Deal With New Technologies | Interview: Arnold Trebach on Drug Treatment Abuse, Legalization and the Reform Movement | US-Mexican Border Governors Agree to Look at Drugs as Health, Not Crime, Problem -- Legalization Talk Making US Embassy Nervous | Follow That Story: Tennessee Cop Walks in Botched Drug Raid Killing | New Zealand Parliamentary Cannabis Decrim Inquiry Underway: Medical Association Says Okay, Green MP Leads the Way | The White Dog Goes to Amsterdam -- and You Can, Too | BC Marijuana Party Fissure: Taylor Resigns, Cites Emery's Leadership Style, Plans for Compassion Club Offensive | Connecticut Passes Sentencing Reforms, Taking Effect July 1st | The HEA Campaign and You | Clarence Aaron Clemency Petition | Action Alerts: Drug Czar Nomination, HEA Drug Provision, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | Call for Submissions: Fortune News to Examine Crack Cocaine Issues | Job Listings in Harm Reduction Practice and Research: Indiana, New York, California, Missouri, Washington State | The Reformer's Calendar
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