Sunday, 21 January 2007

It is revenge. It is retribution

It is revenge. It is retribution

A new sense of moral outrage is leading to a sea change in American attitudes toward the death penalty.

January 21, 2007

Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – No one ever argued that Angel Nieves Diaz was anything but a brutal thug, a man who wore the moniker "Daddy of Death" with pride, a man who had a long-overdue date with justice.

But when justice came calling on a Florida morning last month, it chose to play out a macabre 34-minute dance that stunned even those who preside over death where state-sanctioned killing is routine.

For more than half an hour after receiving an injection, Diaz grimaced in pain, clenched his jaw, licked his lips, moved his eyes.

His body twitched. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down. He tried to speak.

It's not that Florida hadn't botched an execution before.

In the years it favoured the electric chair, smoke and flames twice erupted from the heads of condemned men. Another sat strapped to the chair while blood poured from his nose.

But the grotesque fade to black of Angel Nieves Diaz struck a nerve in this country because these are already dark days for U.S. executioners.

Former Governor Jeb Bush, a prominent member of a family with a proud history of executing criminals and who held the state record for presiding over the ultimate penalty, issued a moratorium on the death penalty in Florida.

The same day at the other end of the country, a California judge halted executions in Arnold Schwarzenegger's "nation state," which had screwed up the high-profile death of gang leader Stanley "Tookie" Williams.

Then Maryland's high court did the same thing. Missouri and South Dakota followed suit. Ohio may not be far behind. New Jersey is poised to go one step further, abolishing the death penalty in a state best known in Canada as the home of The Sopranos.

Fewer Americans are being sent to death and fewer Americans are being sentenced to death.

Forget the distasteful chaos of Saddam Hussein's end or the decapitation of Barzan al-Tikriti because the Iraqi hangman couldn't properly calculate weight and drop.

America, too, is fumbling the fine art of killing.

Its citizens are gradually losing that edge, that peculiar phenomenon called "closure," which in many cases is just revenge spelled differently.

More and more, American executions are a regional phenomenon, with the condemned still backed up on death row in Texas like so many cars on the Gardiner on a rainy rush hour.

Eight in 10 executions last year came in the south where a toxic mix of conservatism, religious teaching, a history of slavery – even the fact that elected judges can politicize the death penalty – keeps the executioner busy.

In the rest of the country, there are concerns that the wrong people might be killed. Juries are deciding life without parole is a tough penalty.

Tastes are changing.

Thirty years after Gary Gilmore, the man immortalized in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, ushered in the modern era of U.S. capital punishment, there are some who think it is now on the way to abolition.

Oh, it's not that the U.S. isn't trying.

It is still one of four countries that account for 95 per cent of the world's executions.

But it's not trying hard enough.

The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., says death sentences are at a 30-year low, the number of executions is at a 10-year-low and for the first time in two decades, a plurality of Americans support life sentences rather than death as the proper penalty for murder.

Thirty-eight states allow capital punishment, all but one using lethal injection.

Nebraska remains the national anachronism, using the electric chair which is now mainly seen in museums in most states.

"I think the country is beginning to realize there is no clean or efficient way to take another life," says Richard Dieter, the executive director of the information centre.

But not everyone is playing to that audience.

Texas and the federal government, for example.

And, of course, the common denominator between the state that carried out 24 of the country's 53 executions in 2006 and the jurisdiction that is swimming upstream when it comes to seeking the death penalty is George W. Bush.

Bush, the man who leapt to the White House straight from Texas, is the most active proponent of the eye-for-an-eye dictum in this country.

Likely no one in the United States felt more frustration at the shoddy workmanship of the Iraqi death industry.

John Ashcroft, Bush's first attorney general, set the tone early, coming from Missouri and preaching the virtue of the death penalty with a religious zeal, a tone that only stiffened after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When he left, the Bush quest for the ultimate penalty didn't miss a beat.

Alberto Gonzales, the current attorney general, was. after all, Bush's legal counsel in Texas, the man who would vet the appeals from those on death row in the state.

He didn't grant a single stay.

According to a now famous 2003 account by Alan Berlow in Atlantic Monthly, Gonzales, as the man standing between clemency and a lethal injection, provided 57 execution-day summaries to Bush, essentially Coles Notes on death which routinely omitted the crucial legal issues at play, ineffective legal counsel, even potential evidence of innocence.

In recent days, Gonzales ordered federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Donna Moonda, a Pennsylvania woman alleged to have hired her lover to kill her husband on the Ohio Turnpike.

No woman has been sentenced to death in a federal case in this country since 1953.

Just before the New Year, Gonzales ordered federal prosecutors to seek death for Eugene Talik Jr., a Pennsylvania trucker charged with strangling his West Virginia lover when the affair soured.

Both murders, the type of mundane love triangle killings which happen every day in this nation, become federal cases because they cut across state jurisdictions.

But, even though there are now 46 federal inmates awaiting death, the Bush administration finds it is having difficulty convincing juries to impose the ultimate penalty in states that are not partial to sentencing people to die.

In New York, which has not granted a death sentence for a federal crime since 1954 and has not executed anyone since 1963, the federal government has a dismal batting average, seeking the death penalty 20 times and being rebuffed 20 times.

New York's highest court declared the state death penalty unconstitutional in 2004.

But Washington keeps trying. There are three capital trials underway there right now.

In the District of Columbia, state delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote the U.S. attorney for the district and told him to butt out.

The Bush administration has twice tried and failed to win a death sentence in a jurisdiction which voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the death penalty in 1992.

Undaunted, government attorney Jeffrey Taylor announced he will try again in another case and Norton told him that zeal had replaced good judgment in his office.

Six people sit on death row under federal charges in states which do not execute people, but are used as holding pens while the Bush administration warms up its death chamber in Indiana.

Even when it purposely moves a trial to a state with a history of executions, it is striking out.

Last year's trial of the deluded and messianic Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui was moved to Virginia, specifically because Gonzales wanted a high-profile killing tied to the attacks.

Instead, a jury sentenced him to life in the country's most secure prison.

Texas, though is not missing a beat.

Nothing squeamish there. None of that Massachusetts liberal attitude about sparing the injection.

"Sure it's a deterrent," says James Marquart, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who chronicled the history of Texas and the death penalty in his book The Rope, The Chair and The Needle.

"It's a deterrent to the guy who did it. They're not going to do it again and we're not going to pay a lot of tax money over 50 to 60 years to keep someone in jail.

"It closes the circle. It is revenge. It is retribution. It is like making a big, old mixed drink, you are throwing a whole lot of things in there.

"In this state, it has always been that way. If you cross the line, that's it."

At least practice makes perfect.

While the rest of the country grapples with the problems brought on by the witch's brew of sodium pentothal, pancuronium bromide and potassium. chloride, Texas hums along.

Never screwed one up.

Can't quite understand the fuss in the rest of the country, let alone the rest of the world.

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