Fear's back, so the pols take it for a ride (2002)

Though still a bit skittish, Americans seem to be dealing with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks better than their politicians. Citizens are finding ways to move on, intent on preserving a strong democratic society that remains committed to justice. Politicians, on the other hand, still want to feast on fear and anger, notably by expanding the nation's most shameful instrument: the death penalty. Latest to join the ghoulish list are California's Republican Assembly members. Last week, they introduced an unnecessary, hopelessly redundant and attention-seeking measure making terrorism a crime punishable by death. Just days after September's awful attacks, the New York legislature expanded that state's capital offenses to include murder committed in furtherance of terrorist activity. Politicians in Wisconsin one-upped them by trying to revive capital punishment, abolished there in 1853. Then, Virginia, South Carolina, Indiana and Illinois climbed aboard, howling for death. Now California's terror-mongers have joined the parade, demonstrating their abhorrence of violence by urging more killing. Attorney General Bill Lockyer, refusing to play, says terrorist activities are already covered under state laws, and most also fall under the federal umbrella. Don't these guys know that California ... and 37 other states plus the federal government ... already have death penalty statutes covering the crimes committed on Sept. 11? What good did they do? Indeed, what impact could the death penalty have in dissuading suicidal terrorists? Rather than stopping zealous bombers, broadening death penalty laws will only ensnare more people in a broken system staggering toward collapse. Illinois' Gov. George Ryan's 2- year-old moratorium on executions exposed the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no evil cover behind which death-promoters like California Gov. Gray Davis and the Assembly Republicans hide. Ryan, a Republican, earlier this year vetoed an expansion of the death penalty, saying ""it would be difficult to imagine a scenario under which a terrorist act resulting in death would not already qualify for capital punishment under our current statute."

Unlike Davis, who is campaigning as Dr. Death, Ryan found the courage to indict the capital punishment system as "fraught with error" and appointed a bipartisan commission to find ways to fix it or end it. Perhaps our Assembly Republicans missed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's statement last July. She noted the more than 90 death row exonerations and said that "serious questions are being raised about whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in this country. .'.'. If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed." Public support for the death penalty has fallen 20 points in a decade because of revelations of withheld evidence, mistaken eyewitness identification, questionable forensic practices, prosecutorial misconduct and simple error. Eager to stem that erosion, California Republican Assembly members hope that exploiting the war on terror by expanding the death penalty will win them votes ... and thus more seats. Will the terror-gambit succeed? A Field Poll last year showed 73 percent of Californians in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty. That shows that people are thinking - not something politicians applaud. Besides fearing that innocent people may be executed, the public is concerned about overwhelming evidence of the system's unfairness. Race, ethnic origin and economic status largely determine who receives a death sentence and who does not. But none of this bothers the Assembly Republicans ... nor, apparently, our governor ... who seem to be equally unaware of the implications of a recent Justice Department study showing that 80 percent of federal defendants sentenced to death are people of color.

Waving the banner of terrorism may feel good ... or at least convenient ... but does it excuse ignorance of the inequities of the system they're trying to prop up?

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently said, ""I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial. People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty." A bitter example of Ginsburg's concern, Stephen Wayne Anderson, was killed by California last month ... after Davis refused to grant clemency ... despite a hapless defense by an attorney whom six justices from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals harshly characterized as ""deceptive, untrustworthy and disloyal to his client." Are those so eager to wrap terrorism into our spider web of death unaware that our national allies in the current conflict have virtually all abolished capital punishment? Or that our continued use of it is driving a wedge between us? The European Union recently announced it would speed up extradition procedures for terrorism suspects, but that none would be sent to the United States if they face a death sentence. That leaves us in the odd company of identified human rights violators such as Iraq, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

In difficult times, people want leadership. So politicians scuttle around trying to appear useful. To trot out the death penalty canard because they can't come up with something meaningful is an embarrassment. A moratorium on political ambition, as well as on new executions, would seem to be in order.

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