Friday, 2 March 2007

Death penalty’s barbarism plagues U.S.

March 2, 2007

Death penalty’s barbarism plagues U.S.

Paul Heideman, The Badger Herald

Ángel Nieves Díaz was supposed to die a “painless” death. Sentenced to die
for a crime he swore he didn’t commit (so insistent was he upon his
innocence that Díaz refused to accept a guilty plea, which would have
resulted in life in prison), Díaz faced Florida’s lethal injection chamber.
Touted by its boosters as the most humane way to go about the ugly business
of capital punishment, execution by lethal injection proved itself to be
anything but in Ángel Nieves Díaz’s case. Indeed, it showed just how ugly
our criminal “justice” system can get.

Díaz lived for 34 long minutes after the lethal chemical cocktail entered
his veins. His cousin later described how Díaz was “shaking… suffering, he
was suffering a lot.” His body was left with foot-long chemical burns on his
arms from this humane form of execution. Lethal injection victims are
supposed to be unconscious when the drugs are administered, and are supposed
to die 10-15 minutes after injection. Díaz enjoyed neither of these

As disturbing as Díaz’s death is on its own, the possibility that the state
of Florida may have executed an innocent man is even more so. Sadly, it is
not an isolated case. All over the country, executions like Díaz’s are
prompting millions of Americans to question the justice behind “the ultimate
punishment.” This can be seen in Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s halting of the
death penalty in his state after Díaz’s torture/execution. The same day, in
California, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel found that his state’s death
penalty was “cruel and unusual punishment.” Maryland has recently gone on
moratorium as well, opening up its infamous justice system to public

For the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, national
abolition seems to be on the agenda. The movement for abolition has finally
succeeded in bringing the system’s worst aspects to public light. For
example, Dr. Mark Dershwitz testified that pancuronium bromide, one of the
drugs in the lethal injection cocktail, serves as a “chemical veil.” Touted
as an anesthetic by executors, it actually only restricts its victims’
movement, not blocking any pain. As a result, “pancuronium will prevent
motor manifestations of physiological processes that could be perceived by
witnesses as unpleasant or suffering on the part of the inmate,” according
to Dershwitz. In other words, prisoners don’t remain silent because they
aren’t feeling pain; they are silent because their mouths are frozen shut to
prevent them from screaming.

The barbarism of this method of execution is only the tip of the iceberg in
terms of the outrages of capital punishment. At its base you’ll find, as
with most other controversial topics in America when you dig deep enough,
good old-fashioned racism. African Americans are about 12 percent of the
general population, yet they make up 42 percent of all prisoners on death
row. Eighty percent of those awaiting execution are charged with killing a
white person. Of the more than 1,000 Americans executed in the last 30
years, only 12 have been charged with killing an African-American.

There is a class element to the system as well. Ninety percent of those on
death row were too poor to afford their own attorneys at the time of their
trials. One in four prisoners was represented by an attorney who was
disciplined for misconduct at some point in his or her career. As one former
prisoner put it, “those without the capital gets the punishment.”

Though it looks like this horrendous system won’t be coming back in
Wisconsin, abolitionists in the Badger State shouldn’t rest on their
haunches. Counting on the Democrats to oppose the death penalty is simply
not a winning strategy. Bill Clinton expanded the death penalty in his 1994
Omnibus Crime Bill, and limited the time for habeas corpus appeals to one
year after convictions. Furthermore, “liberal” Democrat Dianne Feinstein
based her 1990 California gubernatorial campaign on her being the only
candidate who was “pro-choice and pro-death penalty.”

The current opening for abolition wasn’t gained by waiting for politicians
to do the work that needs to be done. It’s been gained by activists refusing
to compromise and doing the hard work of organizing to free innocent
prisoners. The abolitionist movement today must adopt the slogan put forward
by the grandfather behind another generation of abolitionists, William Lloyd
Garrison: We are in earnest, we will not equivocate, we will not excuse, we
will not retreat a single inch, and we will be heard!

There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry
any more. —Adorno


Source : The Badger Herald (Paul Heideman is a graduate student in the
Department of African-American Studies and a member of the International
Socialist Organization.) (Wisconsin)

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