The Unjust Death Penalty
of an Unjust System

Revolutionary Worker #990, January 17, 1999

The lengthening shadow of the death penalty is falling across the United States. This ultimate form of punishment is being used more often, more quickly and more mercilessly by this country's power structure. More than 500 people have been executed in the U.S. since a 1976 Supreme Court decision restored the death penalty. (Executions were put on hold by a 1972 Supreme Court ruling.) As of 1998, laws for capital punishment exist in 38 states and under federal and military law.

The pace of executions is such that for the past six years, an average of one condemned prisoner a week has been put to death. There are now about 3,500 people on death row across this country--and the number continues to grow. According to Amnesty International, "The USA has the highest known death row population on earth."

Driving the "popularity" of the death penalty is an ugly climate of punishment and revenge--promoted from the highest levels of the ruling class. When Bill Clinton was running for the presidency in April 1992, he made a point of interrupting his campaign and returning to Arkansas to refuse clemency for Ricky Ray Rector--a Black mentally retarded prisoner on death row. Rector's understanding of what was happening to him was so limited that he left the dessert from his final meal before execution and asked the guards to "save it for later."

In 1996 Clinton signed the Effective Death Penalty law--which puts harsh restrictions on federal appeals by death row prisoners. Meanwhile, the scope of the death penalty continues to expand. Illinois, for example, had six categories of capital murder in 1977--this had increased to 17 by 1998.

In the face of the mounting use of the death penalty in the U.S., it is worth looking at how it is being used, who is being targeted and what are justifications used to carry out these executions. What follows is an overview of how the death penalty is wielded in late 1990s Amerikkka.

The Racist Edge to Capital Punishment

When it comes to the death penalty, Black people catch a disproportionate amount of hell. Up to the end of 1997 a slight majority of people executed--56 percent--were white. But 37 percent were Black--even though Black people make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. As Mumia Abu-Jamal, the only political prisoner currently facing execution, wrote from his cell in Pennsylvania: "You will find a blacker world on death row than anywhere else."

Another major factor in who gets the death penalty is whether a murder victim is white or Black. Nearly half of all murder victims in the U.S. are Black, but 83 percent of the people executed nationwide were convicted and executed for killing someone who was white. Since 1976, six white people have been executed for murdering a Black person. But 112 Black people have been executed for the murder of a white person.

Philadelphia is a stark example of the way Black people are targeted with the death penalty: 83 percent of those on death row from Philadelphia are African-American. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the odds of receiving a death sentence in that city if you are Black are nearly four times higher than if you are white.

The racism in death penalty cases is often blatant and undisguised. Wilburn Dobbs was a Black man accused of killing a white man in Georgia. Both the judge and his attorney referred to Dobbs as a "colored boy." The attorney referred to the Black community of Chattanooga as "black boy jungle." In Utah William Andrews, an African- American, was sentenced to death even after it was discovered that one of the jurors had drawn a stick figure on a gallows and written on it, "Hang the N***ers." The judge didn't even try to find out who drew the racist picture or if other jurors saw it. Andrews was executed.

Putting Juveniles to Death

Well the "Spanish boys" had their day in court
And now it was time for some fuckin' law and order
The electric chair for the greasy pair
Said the judge to the court reporter

Paul Simon, "Adios Hermanos"

These lines are from the Broadway musical Capeman, based on the true story of Salvador Agron--a Puerto Rican youth in New York City sentenced to death for killing two white teenagers he mistook for rival gang members. Agron was 16 when he was given the death sentence (which was later commuted).

There are currently 70 people on death row who were under 18 at the time of the crimes for which they were given the death penalty. The majority of these youth are Black and Latino. According to Amnesty International, the three known official executions of juveniles worldwide in 1998 were all carried out in the U.S.

Joseph Cannon was one of the three. Cannon, a white teenager, killed Anne Walsh in 1977. (Walsh, the sister of Cannon's lawyer, had agreed to let him stay with her while on parole for a burglary charge.) Cannon was 17 at the time and was borderline mentally retarded. When he was four he was hit by a truck and suffered a fractured skull that left him hyperactive and with a speech impediment. At 10 he was diagnosed with organic brain damage (from sniffing glue), and later as schizophrenic. He also suffered from depression and tried to kill himself when he was 15. He was sexually abused by his stepfather when he was seven and eight, and sexually assaulted by his grandfather between the ages of 10 and 17. He only learned to read and write when he went on death row.

Cannon had confessed to the killing saying, "I go crazy sometimes...I had no grudge or any reason to kill Anne; in fact she went out of her way to be nice to me." Even though doctors testified about the "exceptional" brutality and abuse he had been subjected to as a child, Cannon was still sentenced to die.

According to Amnesty International, "On 22 April 1998, Joseph Cannon was led to the death chamber in Texas, the threat he had lived with for more than half of his life. As the lethal solution began to flow, the needle blew out of his arm. Witnesses to the execution were ushered out, while the needle was reinserted. A few minutes later they returned to watch him be put to death."

Executing the Mentally Impaired

The rock bottom meanness and the genocidal edge of the death penalty shows through in the way the mentally ill and mentally impaired are sent to death row. At least 30 mentally retarded prisoners were among the 500 put to death since the resumptions of executions in the U.S. Many times the jury that hands down a death sentence doesn't even know the true situation of the person they're condemning, because the prosecutors try to keep these facts from them. The following three cases, all involving Black men, give a picture of what is going on:

  • Terry Washington was sentenced to death for the murder of a college student in 1987. He was later determined by a court to have organic brain damage attributed to fetal alcohol syndrome, aggravated by years of poverty, physical abuse and constant seizures. None of this was presented to the jury at his trial, and he was sentenced to die. Washington was executed in Texas on May 6, 1997.
  • Durlyn Eddmonds was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1973. This diagnosis was confirmed six times between 1977 and 1980 when he went on trial for killing a 9-year old boy. In November 1997 he was executed in Illinois.
  • Tony Mackall was executed in Virginia on February 10, 1998, in spite of evidence that he was mentally retarded and had suffered head injuries as a child--something his jury was unaware of.
  • Women on Death Row

    In February 1998, Karla Faye Tucker was executed in Texas. Tucker was the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War, and the second woman executed in the U.S. since the reintroduction of executions in 1977. The execution was carried out over the protests of anti-death penalty advocates throughout the U.S. and internationally. Even Christian fascist forces and the Pope asked for a stay of execution, because Tucker was a born-again Christian. Texas Governor George W. Bush, son of the former president, (who is now promoted as a possible presidential candidate), justified his decision to not stop the execution by saying, "I believe our system has treated people on death row fairly."

    As of June 1998, 43 other women in 15 states were on death row. Eleven of these women were given death sentences for killing, or arranging to kill, their husbands. And at least four women are on death row for killing police officers.

    Condemning the Innocent

    One of the dirty secrets about the death penalty is that by this system's own standards, many people have been wrongfully convicted and executed. Since 1973 a total of 73 men and 2 women have been released from death row after proving their innocence through the courts. Twenty-one condemned prisoners have been released since 1993, including seven from Illinois alone. For about every seven executions in the U.S. since 1976, one condemned person has been freed after being wrongfully convicted and sent to death row.

    A conference held in November 1998, sponsored by the Northwestern University School of Law in Illinois, brought together victims of wrongful death penalty convictions, their lawyers, death penalty activists and others. More than a thousand people attended this conference. In the most charged moment of the conference, 28 of these formerly condemned prisoners went to the mike one by one, gave their names and said they were "death row survivors." Dennis Williams, an artist, said, "Had the state of Illinois gotten its way, I'd be dead today."

    Targeting Political Prisoners

    Another chilling aspect of the death penalty in this country is the potential for use against political prisoners. The threat of execution now hanging over Mumia Abu-Jamal is very significant in this regard. It should be noted that Pennsylvania, where Mumia is imprisoned, has the fourth largest death row in the country with over 200 prisoners. Pennsylvania's first execution since the death penalty's reinstatement was in 1995--the same year a death warrant was signed for Mumia. That same year the death penalty was reintroduced in the state of New York--the site of the last major execution of political prisoners in the U.S., Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

    The threat of execution against Mumia reveals, in a concentrated way, how the U.S. government deals with political opponents--especially revolutionaries whose voices connect with those at the bottom of society. Mumia was convicted of the murder of a cop on the basis of an official frame-up and cover-up. The prosecutor used Mumia's political background and beliefs as an argument for giving him the death penalty.

    Clearly, the power structure is intent on delivering a murderous blow against the people through a legal lynching of this revolutionary brother. And, just as clearly, the people can not afford to let the powers-that-be take Mumia away from us.

    Texas--Leader in Executions

    Folks just got too civilized
    Sparkys gathering dust

    Cause no one wants to touch a smoking gun.
    Since they got the injection
    They don't mind as much.
    I guess they just put em down at Ellis Unit 1

    Steve Earle, "Ellis Unit 1"

    As Amnesty International points out, the state of Texas executes more people than any other jurisdiction in the Western world. Of the 74 executions in the U.S. in 1997, half took place in Texas. All the executions were by lethal injection at the infamous death chamber in Huntsville. Texas pioneered execution by lethal injection in 1982. Death row is located at Huntsville's infamous Ellis Unit 1.

    Ellis Unit 1 concentrates the unjust nature of death penalty, USA. As of January 1, 1998, of the 436 men on Texas death row, 173 were Black, 171 white and 89 Latino (including 11 Mexican citizens). There were six women--four white, two Black. Of the 144 prisoners killed by the state up to the end of 1997, 127 (88 percent) were executed for the murder of a white victim--even though 58 percent of murder victims in Texas are from various oppressed nationalities.

    Texas also has 26 of the 70 juvenile offenders on death row in the U.S. as of June 1998. Of the 11 juveniles executed nationwide since 1985, seven have been put to death in Texas.

    The clemency process in Texas is a window into viciousness. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles hears clemency applications in secret, doesn't keep records of its deliberations and doesn't give reasons for its decisions. As one Canadian press report noted, "In effect, the individual members communicate their decision by fax--a process that has come to be characterized as `death by fax.'"

    There is a death camp flavor to Texas' death row. It is one of the few states that "allows" death row inmates to work (for no pay). The prison's garment factory makes prison guard uniforms and bags. One prisoner told a visiting Amnesty International delegation, "A lot of people are not comfortable working for the state that's going to kill them."

    Targeting the Foreign Born

    As part of its overall war on immigrants, the system is also using the death penalty on people from outside the U.S. There are more than 60 foreign citizens, from 22 different countries, under sentence of death in the U.S. An international treaty, which the U.S. signed, mandates that foreign nationals be informed of their right to contact their native consul in the country where they are arrested. The U.S. routinely ignores this treaty. In April 1998 Angel Breard, a citizen of Paraguay, was executed in Virginia in violation of this treaty. The same month José Villafuerte, a Honduran citizen was executed. He, too, had never been informed of his right to contact his country's consul.

    Stanley Faulder, a Canadian citizen, was nearly executed in December in Texas. Even U.S. Secretary of State Albright--perhaps worried about the implications for U.S. citizens if other countries stopped honoring the treaty--intervened to ask for a stay of execution. It was only after the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in that the execution of Faulder was stayed--for now.

    Justifications and Victims Rights

    Government officials and politicians regularly cite opinion polls saying that the majority of people in the U.S. favor capital punishment. And officials constantly call for expanding the use of the death penalty as a "deterrent" to crime--even though for the past several years, the government has released statistics showing that the crime rate is falling. And studies have stated time and again that there is no correlation between the death penalty and "deterrence."

    Bourgeois politicians and the media cynically whip up talk of "victim's rights" to push for more executions. Prosecutors manipulate families of victims as political backdrops, and right-wing groups actively recruit grieving families as lobbyists for a police state.

    Of course, people whose loved ones have been murdered feel a deep sense of grief and loss. But there can be no justice in calling for this oppressive government to carry out family vengeance. Justice is actually a social question, not a kind of "personal payback." Criminal acts are fundamentally anti-social acts--and the desires of the victims (or their families) should not be the standard by which society decides how to deal with crime.

    The social standard for justice should be: What response will help create the conditions where such acts, along with all forms of oppression, are prevented and ultimately abolished? An understanding of the oppressive nature of the state that rules over us is crucial in this. Calling for this state to execute prisoners does not help abolish the conditions where people murder and rape.

    Among the families of victims, there are those who refuse to be drawn into the reactionary "victim's rights" movement. Jeanne Bishop's 25-year-old sister and her husband were murdered by a teenager in 1990. Bishop told Amnesty International: "After he was convicted and sentenced, the first question [the press] asked me was `Well, aren't you disappointed that he didn't get the death penalty?' That staggered me; that was the first time that I spoke out against the death penalty, publicly, after my sister's murder. I said `no'--I mean she loved life, she believed in it, she valued it, she would never want her memorial to be the death of another human being, she would never want more bloodshed to be the thing by which we honored her life. Beyond that I really feel that I wouldn't inflict on my worst enemy the grief that was inflicted on us by him...I can't imagine saying `your son took my sister's life--he had a brother and a sister, perfectly normal kids--'so now I'll take your son's or your brother's life as my revenge.' I don't see the point of that except widening the circle of grief to include them."

    The Fight Against the Death Penalty

    As Andrew Smith was being executed in South Carolina last December 18--the 500th person killed since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment--demonstrators gathered outside the prison. They dipped their hand in red paint--symbolic of the blood on the hands of the state--and tried to block traffic outside the prison. Nine people were arrested. Other actions took place in 26 others states and 15 countries.

    These protests are part of a growing movement against the death penalty. The movement includes such organizations as Amnesty International, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Death Penalty Information Center; religious forces such as the Bruderhof communities; prominent individuals such as Sister Helen Prejean, Susan Sarandon and Mike Farrell; progressive attorneys and many others. Many oppose the death penalty based on humanitarian and/or religious grounds--deploring the cruelty of the death penalty or saying all life is sacred and it is never right to kill. Amnesty International refers to those opposed to the death penalty as "abolitionists"--a reference to the movement to abolish slavery in the early 19th century.

    For communist revolutionaries, opposition to this government's death penalty is part of opposing the capitalist system's attacks on the people and fighting for a different future. As RCP Chairman Bob Avakian has written: "Communists oppose the use of the death penalty by the bourgeois state because this will be used overwhelmingly against people from the oppressed masses and will be wielded to reinforce the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, fortifying its repressive apparatus and forging a more repressive political atmosphere which, again, will be overwhelmingly directed against the oppressed masses and those who oppose the status quo."

    The death penalty is a sinister and dangerous weapon in the hands of this system's rulers, who base their continued survival on the intensified misery, repression and scapegoating of oppressed people. This weapon is a threat against the interests of the majority of the people--and it needs to be taken out of the hands of the enemy.


    The Death Penalty in Texas: Lethal Injustice, Amnesty International, March 1998

    On the Wrong Side of History: Children and the Death Penalty in the USA, Amnesty International, October 1998

    United States of America: A Macabre Assembly Line of Death. Death Penalty Developments in 1997, Amnesty International, April 1998

    Innocence and the Death Penalty: The Increasing Danger of Executing the Innocent, Richard C. Dieter, Esq. Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center.

    "Survivors Make the Case Against Death Row," New York Times, 11/16/98

    The Death Penalty in 1997: Year End Report, Death Penalty Information Center

    "Texas Justice and Stanley Faulder," The Gazette (Montreal) 12/21/98

    The Death Penalty in Black & White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides, Death Penalty Information Center

    The Death Penalty in 1997: Year End Report, Death Penalty Information Center December 1997

    "Life and Death in a Texas Prison Town," Baltimore Sun, 12/23/98 "500th Inmate Executed Since Revival of Death Penalty," L.A. Times 12/19/98

    This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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