By CAROLE SELIGMAN
The United States has the highest population of any country on earth-over 3600-living on death row. In addition to being the only industrialized country to carry out executions, since re-instating capital punishment in 1977, the United States is executing more prisoners each year, including over 30 mentally retarded people.
The United States also has the distinction of having executed the greatest number of inmates who were children or teenagers at the time of their crimes of any country in the world. The latest of these was Shaka Sankofa in Texas.
Despite the wishes of the Democratic and Republican politicians and candidates, who wholeheartedly support and carry out state murder, the death penalty has become a major issue in this year’s presidential campaign.
The June 22 execution of Shaka Sankofa (born Gary Graham), an innocent man in Texas who never had the semblance of a fair trial, produced a huge outcry and coverage in the media because George W. Bush is the Republican candidate for president. As governor of Texas, with the most active death row in the country (though California has more prison inmates waiting on death row), Bush was heavily scrutinized and publically pressured to save Sankofa’s life.
Opponents of the execution of Mr. Sankofa, who bravely resisted his own murder until the very end, included a contingent of recently released former death row inmates found to be innocent of the capital crimes for which they were convicted. Since 1973 more than 85 U.S. prisoners have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence of the crimes for which they were convicted came out.
Sankofa was also supported by a rape victim whose testimony helped send the wrong man to serve 11 years in prison for the crime. DNA evidence later established his innocence and the guilt of another man.
This protest from a mistaken eyewitness was particularly fitting in that Shaka Sankofa was convicted merely on the testimony of one eyewitness who claimed to have seen him at night and at a distance.
Because of the recent exposure of innocent people being released from death row on the basis of DNA evidence, as well as the statistics of the incredible racial disparity in sentencing, whereby most inmates on America’s death rows are Black and brown, there is widespread support for a national moratorium on all executions.
A full-page advertisement was published in The New York Times with 4000 signers calling for an immediate national moratorium on the death penalty because of the grossly unjust and unequal way that it is applied.
Recently, as well, a large number of editorials and nationally syndicated columns from major media have questioned or outright opposed the death penalty. The New York Times editorialized against it three times before and after the execution of Shaka Sankofa.
Castro on Shaka Sankofa’s execution
The ruling class, represented by the two political parties they finance, the Democrats and Republicans, is very firmly wedded to capital punishment. After all, the death penalty is certainly the ultimate, most terrifying instrument of rule of a class that is such a miniscule percentage (less than 1 percent) of the population.
Cuban President Fidel Castro, in a June 26 speech to the people of Holguín, Cuba, said, “Shaka Sankofa has shown the world the bitter fruits of a social system where the differences between the richest and the poorest are infinite, and where individualism, selfishness and consumerism, the widespread use of firearms and violence reign like a fundamental philosophy.”
Castro speaks with knowledge. Of industrialized countries, the United States has the highest disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor of any country.
Radical historian Michael Parenti put it this way, “During the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era, the share of the national income going to those who work for a living shrank by over 12 percent. The share pocketed by those who live principally off their investments increased almost 35 percent” (Against the Current, May, June 1998).
This fact cannot be divorced from the use of the death penalty as a means of cementing the rule of the rich. Its use is not to deter crime but to terrify forces who would struggle to change the social order that props up this system of inequality.
Bush and Gore
While Bush, as Texas governor, has carried out the most state murders under his reign, Gore actively campaigns for expanding the death penalty as punishment for more categories of crime and brags about his and the Clinton’s administration’s expansion of the death penalty.
At a speech in Atlanta on May 2, Al Gore bragged, “President Clinton and I believed that we needed a tougher … strategy to fight crime on every single front: smarter prevention to stop crime before it even starts. More police on the streets to thicken the thin blue line between order and disorder. And tougher punishments-including the death penalty-for those who dared to terrorize the innocent.”
Gore’s legacy includes the 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which restricts the rights of convicted persons to appeal their death sentences. In effect, what happened to Shaka Sankofa in Texas (where his proof of innocence was pointedly ignored by all appeals courts), now can and does happen in the appeals process nationally. You can thank both the Democrats and the Republicans for that assault on basic civil rights.
Ever since candidate Clinton interrupted his first presidential campaign to return to Arkansas to watch the execution of a mentally retarded inmate as his way of not only upholding, but applauding and even reveling in the blood revenge of the death penalty, it has been crystal clear that the Democrats offer nothing to voters that is morally superior to the Republicans.
It is really hopeless to look for abolition of the death penalty from either of the two ruling parties, though the Democrats are making active overtures to the abolitionists by trying to pose Gore as less evil than Bush.
The numbers of innocent people the state has been forced to release from death row, as well as the incredible statistics proving the racism inherent in the system, has certainly undermined public confidence in the administration of “justice” in this country. A majority of the American people say they favor life imprisonment without possibility of parole as a substitute for the death penalty in capital crimes.
In the face of such widespread opposition to capital punishment, how can we account for the persistent support of the death penalty by the leading capitalist politicians, Bush and Gore?
The most plausible explanation I found to this question comes from a man who has been a death row inmate for 19 years, Mumia Abu-Jamal: “Prisons serve another function: the inculcation of terror in the minds of the working class, as a tool of class and racial discipline” (Monthly Review, October 1999).
In other words, the capitalist candidates for president are united in putting the class interests of the capitalist system first. Working people need to break decisively with these parties in order to even begin to make a change that will benefit and assure justice to ourselves, the majority.