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Iowa State Legislature Speech (1993)

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak before you this evening. Though I am not a resident of the state I feel a particular affinity for Iowa and Iowans, having been born not far from here in South St. Paul. I have many friends here, have spent a good deal of time in the area and, of course, have enjoyed my wife's association with the Donna Reed Festival for the Performing Arts in Denison, to name only a few connections.

The subject this evening is a grave one. The notion that this state, the heart of America, which enjoys the distinction of being one of the thirteen states in the Union with the courage to stand against the rising tide of blood lust in this country, would consider changing that status is a chilling one for those of us who believe that the Founding Fathers gave us a higher purpose to live up to when they said we in this country possessed “certain inalienable rights.”

The issue of capital punishment has, tragically, become something of a political football in our country today, as a result of which it is the subject of much rhetorical flourish, a great deal of emotionalism and painfully little serious consideration. That being the case, I particularly appreciate the time given here this evening.

I trust you will hear from others that we now know the death penalty is more expensive than keeping the perpetrator in prison for life, that it is insupportable on moral, religious or ethical grounds and, importantly, that contrary to the conventional wisdom polls all over the country now show that the majority of the people, when the options are available and clearly explained, choose a maximum sentence of life without possibility of parole or life with a minimum of 25 years plus restitution to the victim's family rather than the death penalty, so I'd like to approach it from a slightly different point of view.

Though many continue to turn away in confusion, unable to face their conflicting emotional responses when 20,000 volts surge through the body of one of our own, cooking his flesh, when he writhes, gasping in pain as the cyanide fumes sear his lungs, strangling him, or dangles, gasping, gagging, kicking at the end of the rope, or feels the firing squad's bullets tearing through his flesh, or lies, burning, crucified on a gurney as the poison courses murderously toward his heart, today in the United States of America, of all places, human beings are put to death at the hands of the state. How have we come to the place where we, the world-renowned champion of human rights, can pretend to not understand that the ultimate violation of human rights is taking place in our own back yards with our consent?

The answer is politics. Not politics as Aristotle described it, “the taking care of the common good of all the people,” but the worst kind of politics, the manipulation of people's fears in order to advance one's own political agenda.

About 25 years ago, when we were going through the throes of rediscovering who and what we are as Americans, when the Vietnam war was raging and causing us to ask what we truly stood for, opinion polls on the subject of the death penalty were almost exactly the opposite of what they supposedly say today. At that point, claiming they had a “secret plan” to end the war, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew came to power and brought with them a right wing agenda that, I submit, has thrown the country into a tailspin from which it has still not recovered.

The tactics, in retrospect, are painfully, almost embarrassingly obvious. They lied to us, they amassed power and wealth for themselves and their friends and they kept us off balance by inflaming our fears, preaching hatred and racial division through the clever use of code words and terms like “Southern Strategy” and “state's rights” and “forced busing.” They sowed seeds of distrust among us by denouncing “permissiveness,” by insisting our problems would be solved if we'd only “get tough on crime,” by enlisting the media through the use of catchy alliterations about “nattering nabobs of negativism” and by labeling young people in our country “bums” and “traitors” who were “soft on communism” because they disagreed with policies that, as we now know, were in fact murderous breaches of international law and antithetical to everything for which we stand.

After a brief respite during the Carter years when an attempt was made to articulate a new awareness of human rights, the same old right wing agenda, never much out of the news, was breathed new life through the charming simplicity of Ronald Reagan, whose attacks on fictitious “Cadillac-driving welfare queens,” on civil rights laws, on “racial quotas,” interwoven with false claims that people are out of work because they're “lazy,” eat in soup kitchens because “they like the food” and are homeless by choice, gulled many Americans into accepting the notion that the problem was “those others” and the answer was the same old right wing rhetoric, “get tough on crime.”

Being “tough on crime,” then, became the new paradigm for manhood and rough and ready Americanism. And politicians of both parties, ever aware of the value of symbolism for the enhancement of their careers, bought in with a vengeance. Some legislators, though recognizing a moral and ethical disaster in the making, took a low profile on the subject because they felt, incorrectly I think, that they would otherwise appear soft, weak, or be made politically vulnerable. Others, recognizing an opportunity to make points, chose the most dramatic pose available. How better to show you're tough on crime than to come out for killing people? Kill kidnappers, kill drug abusers, kill “drug kingpins,” kill traitors, kill sex criminals, kill killers. Let's at least kill killers. Who could be soft on killers?

President Bush, terrified of being thought a wimp, became a champion of death. He Willie Horton-ed his way into the White House, further proved his mettle by attempting to expand the death penalty through legislation and by appointments to the Supreme Court, then set up a couple of Hitlers abroad to demonize, further implanting the notion that manhood equals patriotism equals a willingness to kill.

President Roosevelt was right about fear and we forget his admonition at our peril. The politics of fear, as manipulated by the right wing, has riven our country. Today, while most of their political and economic agenda has been stripped of its glib cover and exposed for the disaster it is, the primary vestige of their social and cultural agenda still in place is the legacy of the mean-spirited insistence that the way to “get tough on crime” is to punish the poor and minorities, to build more prisons so we can put more of them out of sight, and to kill.

The result?

The prison population in our country nearly tripled since 1976 without creating a noticeable change in violent crime.

There are more young African-American men in prison in our country today than there are in college.

In a recent study, American high school students were asked if they'd rather be rich or smart. They chose rich.

If you don't see the connection, I'm sorry. Something is dreadfully wrong with the way we've been doing things and authoritarianism is not the answer. It's the problem. People have been told they don't matter in so many ways they're beginning to believe it. And act like it. They need to be reinvested with a sense of their own value and that doesn't come from having the state in the business of killing its citizens. The human wreckage left in the wake of a system of state-sanctioned killing reaches far beyond the victim, the condemned and their families. It touches all of us.

Studies have now found over 140 instances where Americans sentenced to death in this country were later proven to be innocent. Unfortunately, two dozen of them had already been executed.

The 2, 676 inmates on death row in our country today are disproportionately poor, members of minority groups and those who had an inadequate, often criminally incompetent defense. 10% of them are mentally retarded, an unknown number are seriously mentally ill; one study showed that 9 out of 10 were physically or sexually abused as children Since the fetal alcohol syndrome and its effects on adult behavior are only now coming to be fully understood, only God knows how many of its victims populate this community, or are out there knocking at the door.

Let me give you a few specifics:

Barry Lee Fairchild is soon to be executed in Arkansas for the rape/murder of a white nurse. New evidence shows that he was the fourteenth black man to have been brought in to the Sheriff's office. Each was told there was proof he had done it. Each was beaten in an attempt to extract a confession. The other thirteen refused to submit. Barry gave in. The difference is that he is mentally retarded.

In January of 1993, Charles Stamper was carried to the electric chair in Virginia after being lifted by three guards out of his wheel chair.

On November 20, 1992, Cornelius Singleton was electrocuted after signing, with his X, a confession he couldn't read. He had an IQ of approximately 61.

In January of 1992, Rickey Rector, who had been effectively lobotomized by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the time of his crime and had virtually no comprehension of his situation, was led to his execution. He left the dessert from his last meal waiting in his cell for when he returned. (The chaplain at that institution subsequently left, went into psychiatric care and today refers to Rickey's execution as a crime in itself. He says “we're not supposed to execute children.”)

In Florida in 1990, Jesse Tafero's head was set afire during his execution.

This month, the Supreme Court of the United States, in the Herrera case, held that innocence was not sufficient justification to stop an execution – a decision Justice Blackmun, in dissent, said was “perilously close to simple murder.”

Rather than take more of your time, let me urge you to read in this week's New Yorker Magazine a compelling article on the life and death of Rickey Rector. Also I recommend a new book by Michael Radelet, Hugo Bedau and Constance Putnam, “In Spite of Innocence – The Ordeal of 400 Americans Wrongly Convicted of Crimes Punishable by Death.”

I thank you for your time and attention and urge you to remember the words of John Dewey, who said “the human power to respond to reason and truth protect democracy.” Thoughtful, enlightened, compassionate leadership is what is urgently needed today, both here in the State of Iowa and in our country at large. State sanctioned killing is neither an acceptable answer to today's problems, nor an appropriate lesson for us to be teaching our children.


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