The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 1, No. 6
June 2013
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Some Are More Equal Than Others

            In the allegorical post-WW II book Animal Farm, author George Orwell satirizes the Russian revolution that had devolved from a people's revolution into the totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship.
            Using barnyard animals as characters, Orwell demonstrated how every animal was treated fairly in the beginning of the revolution, but as one group gained power, they begin aping humans. Eventually the rules were rewritten by the new elite. From a society of total equality, the new nation became one where, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." In the end, the animals morphed into the humans against whom they had revolted.


            In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that state courts must provide legal counsel to felony defendants who were financially unable to hire an attorney. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the decision, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) commissioned a fifty-state review to determine how the ruling was being implemented. Unfortunately, the egalitarianism of Orwell's pigs and equality of legal defense under Gideon are both fictional.


            One of the report findings is the overwhelming lack of adequate funding for court appointed criminal representation in most states. There is a hodgepodge of methods used across the country to reimburse attorneys who are assigned criminal cases, but the fees are so insignificant that the quality of defense suffers. Criminal attorneys charge some of the highest fees in their profession, but the average hourly rate of compensation allowed by the states is a paltry $65, with some states only allowing $40 per hour.


            Many indigent defendants are assigned public defenders, which presents another set of entirely different problems. One of the chief concerns of public defenders is the huge caseload they are forced to carry, which means little time to research and prepare for an adequate defense. The NACDL report cites a fear that in order to make ends meet, "an inadequate, inexperienced, and overworked and inherently conflicted pool of attorneys" will accept an overload of criminal cases. This can lead to poor defense and plea agreements, which may not be in the best interest if the defendant.


            The NACDL report also points out the lack of funds affects adequate representation of indigent defendants since there is no money available to hire research assistance, employ expert witnesses, or to conduct scientific testing of evidence. The very things that might prove innocence cannot be afforded.


            Although the NACDL report is primarily an argument that fees for court appointed attorneys must be increased, there is an underlying subtext: unless the fee system is reformed, attorneys representing indigents will find it "almost impossible to provide effective representation." This is troubling since 80% of all felony defendants will be represented by a public assigned attorney.


            The criminal justice system for capital crimes is broken, especially when faulty representation results in state-sponsored homicide.  While Gideon v. Wainwright specifies that indigent criminal defendants must receive legal representation, the reality is that the quality of the representation is not mandated. Poor representation, beginning at the pre-trial level, is another factor in why the overwhelming number of minorities, poor, and poorly educated people fill death row houses across the country.


            Hopefully, someday our society will reflect the sentiments of Boxer, the dog in Animal Farm, who stated, "I have no wish to take life, not even human life."


Ronald T. Clemmons, Convener

Death Penalty Abolition Action Group



Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them. ~ Proverbs 22:22-23
Anti-Death Penalty Hand    
Potpourri: U.S. Death Penalty News


            News about the death penalty from around the country:
            Maryland officially abolished the death penalty in May, but a petition drive was mounted to allow voters to have final decision in the 2014 elections. The petition effort failed and Maryland is the eighteenth state that has banned the death penalty.    
            Tennessee death row inmate Timothy McKinney was freed on May 21 after spending 15 years in prison. He was convicted of killing a Memphis police officer in 1999, but the verdict was overturned. He was retried two addition times, but both trials resulted in hung juries. Rather than retry the case for a fourth time, the state agreed to reduce the charges to second degree murder and allow McKinney his freedom for the time served. 
            Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper indefinitely stayed the execution of a prisoner slated to be executed in August due to ongoing concerns about the fairness of the death penalty. The Governor stated, "If the State of Colorado is going to undertake the responsibility of executing a human being, the system must operate flawlessly. Colorado's system for capital punishment is not flawless."
             Georgia inmate Warren Hill's attorneys petition the Supreme Court to prevent his execution due to intellectual disability. In Georgia, defendants must prove intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt, the highest standard in the country.  According to Hill's legal petition, "all seven mental health experts who have ever evaluated Hill, both the State's and Hill's, now unanimously agree that he is mentally retarded."
            North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has a bill on his desk that repeals the states Racial Justice Act. The legislation, passed in 2009, allowed death row inmates to use state and county statistics and other material to claim that race played a role in their sentencing. Along with other changes in state law on administrative changes to death penalty procedures designed to comply with legal challenges, many believe that the state will recommence executing death row inmates as soon as possible.
            Florida won a dubious honor on May 19 when inmate Gary Alvord passed away of natural causes: it became the state that held a death row inmate the longest without ever executing him. Alvord was on death row for 40 years. He faced execution twice, but severe mental illness prevented his execution. In 1984, doctors refused to treat his mental illness, citing ethical concerns. They refused to help a patient get well enough to be executed.

Death Penalty Has A Long History


            The first established death penalty laws date as far back as the Eighteenth Century B.C. in the Code of King Hammaurabi of Babylon, which codified the death penalty for 25 different crimes. The death penalty was also part of the Fourteenth Century B.C.'s Hittite 

Code; in the Seventh Century B.C.'s Draconian Code of Athens, which made


death the only punishment for all crimes; and in the Fifth Century B.C.'s Roman Law of the Twelve Tablets. Death sentences were carried out by such means as crucifixion, drowning, beating to death, burning alive, and impalement.


            In the Tenth Century A.D., hanging became the usual method of execution in Britain. In the following century, William the Conqueror would not allow persons to be hanged or otherwise executed for any crime, except in times of war. This trend would not last, for in the Sixteenth Century, under the reign of Henry VIII, as many as 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed. Some common methods of execution at that time were boiling, burning at the stake, hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering. Executions were carried out for such capital offenses as marrying a Jew, not confessing to a crime, and treason. 


            The number of capital crimes in Britain continued to rise throughout the next two centuries. By the 1700s, 222 crimes were punishable by death in Britain, including stealing, cutting down a tree, and robbing a rabbit warren. Because of the severity of the death penalty, many juries would not convict defendants if the offense was not serious. This led to reforms of Britain's death penalty. From 1823 to 1837, the death penalty was eliminated for over 100 of the 222 crimes punishable by death. (Randa, 1997)


Information Courtesy of the Death Penalty Information Center

Where Justice And Mercy Meet
Where Justice And Mercy Meet: A Review

            In a religion established on the non-violent philosophy of a leader who was innocently murdered based on perjured testimony, the Catholic Church has experienced a torturous journey in establishing its position on the death penalty.


            This two millennia trek through the moral wilderness of how Christians should respond to the death penalty is the theme of Where Justice And Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty edited by Vicki Schieber, Trudy D. Conway, and David M. McCarthy.


            The Church's opposition to the death penalty is a relatively new position, tracking closely its anti-abortion stance following Roe v. Wade.  Early Christians did not participate in any functions of government and had no position on the death penalty. From the fourth to the sixteen century, the Church recognized the state's right to execute criminals, and Christians helped implement the executions. This involvement was given great support by a Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. During the Enlightenment, the Church began to reconsider its support of the death penalty, but the final condemnation did not occur until 1997, when it was finally incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church.


            Where Justice And Mercy Meet consists of a series of essays that examines the death penalty from various tenets of the Christian faith: forgiveness, the Eucharist,  justice, right to live, equality, economic rights, and concern for the less fortunate. These issues are addressed using the Bible, Catholic social teachings, Papal encyclicals, and official positions of the church on the various social issues.


            In addition to the well-written articles, the book is interlaced with stories written by people who have suffered the loss of a child or family member to a senseless act of violence. Reading these stories and trying to imagine your own reaction under similar circumstances are perhaps the most thought provoking sections of the book. The stories of how the families cope and work toward forgiveness of their loved one's killer are not cloying sentimentalism. They daily have to address the issue: does forgiveness mean forgetting? How each family remembers their loved ones, meets Christ's command to love your neighbor, and adheres to the Church's call to treat everyone as Christ is a struggle each family has to address.


             The editors also examine one of the chief arguments always given by supporters of the death penalty: the "eye for an eye" shibboleth. The author of this article states that rather than authorizing a retaliatory response, Hebrew law was structured in such a way that capital punishment was seldom used. Other sections of Mosaic law and the Talmud must be examined to get a true understanding of this this oft-quoted portion of the Torah. In fact, monetary compensation, rather than retribution, was often the response to an injustice, according to the author.


             The execution of the mentally challenged is another grave issue discussed in this book. Although the courts have ruled that mentally challenged individuals cannot be executed, there is no ban on people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, or dementia.  In some states, the defendant must demonstrate intellectual disability beyond a reasonable doubt. While progress has been made in not executing the mentally challenged, society has to avoid the repetition of the intellectually challenged inmate who so failed to understand what was occurring to him that he innocently asked his guard if he could eat the ice cream from his last meal after the execution was completed!


            This panoramic study of the death penalty from a Catholic perspective is excellent. Having been issued in February 2013, it provides the reader with the most up-to-date research on the issues being considered. Although the book is composed of articles written mainly by individuals in higher education, it is not pedagogically pretentious.  The articles are documented for additional individual research, but not with academic flotsam that distracts from the ideas under consideration.


            Where Justice And Mercy Meet will stimulate thought and serve as a primary resource book for any discussion of the death penalty. It will be useful to everyone interested in the current state of the death penalty, especially those who are just beginning to work in this area.  It also could serve as an excellent tool in a class or seminar on the death penalty. At the end of each chapter the editors have added a set of thought-provoking questions that would fully engage participants.


            Finally, this book was written for a Catholic audience, but the contents are applicable to all religious groups. No Christian denomination or other major religion in the United States is doing enough to eradicate this social blight that colors not only our moral values, but our standing in the international community.


Reviewed  by Ronald T. Clemmons


Vicki Schieber, Trudy D. Conway, and David M. McCarthy, Where Justice And Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty. Liturgical Press, 2013. 248 pages. ISBN 978-0-8146-3533-9, $18.95.