Toward the 19th Century (1999)

Next March Californians will vote on Propositions 18 and 21 which would expand the number of categories of crimes eligible for the death penalty. This comes at a time when the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction and the United States' use of capital punishment is turning our nation into an international human rights pariah. Consider:

...In Norway, members of Amnesty International protest to President Clinton, urging him to stop our states from executing juvenile offenders and the mentally impaired.

...In Spain, demonstrators chant and wave signs in front of the American embassy, protesting the execution of a Spanish citizen in the U.S., condemned without being granted his guaranteed right to meet with the Consul of his nation.

...Leaders of Germany, Honduras, Canada, Paraguay and Thailand complain to individual state governors, the Department of State and the White House about their nations' citizens being executed here without regard to treaty-guaranteed rights.

...The Inter-American Court on Human Rights rules against the U.S. in a suit on the right to consular access for the condemned.

...The 15-member European Union passes a resolution calling for the immediate global abolition of the death penalty, specifically calling on all states within the U.S. to do so.

...Amnesty International includes the United States on its list of human rights violators, putting us in the company of Algeria, Cambodia and Turkey for, among other things, our increasing use of state killing.

The U.S. is now the most flagrant transgressor of the international ban on executing juvenile offenders. In 1999, Oklahoma executed Sean Sellers, 16-years-old at the time of his crime. Texas has executed seven juvenile offenders since 1985. Today, over 70 child offenders are on death row in the U.S. In this pursuit, which puts us in the company of Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, we have defied consecutive unanimous rulings of the world's highest judicial body, the International Court of Justice, which called for an immediate end to the execution of minors.

Twenty-six U.S. states, including California, allow the execution of mentally retarded defendants.

Western Europe has long since stopped killing its prisoners. The trend is spreading eastward, with Bulgaria and Albania's recent ban bringing the number of countries that have stopped implementing the death penalty to an all-time high of 106. This year Russia commuted the death sentences of all 700 of its condemned prisoners to life in prison. Even Turkey is reconsidering the use of state killing after an overture from the European Union regarding admission. Some of the world's most respected leaders -- including Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights -- have urged an end to the death penalty. Last week Pope John Paul called on "all those in authority to reach an international consensus on the abolition of the death penalty" in the Year 2000.

Yet we turn a deaf ear. Nearly 100 individuals will be executed in the U.S. by the end of 1999, a rate eerily consistent with the pace maintained from 1930 to 1967, when 3,859 prisoners were killed. If California expands its categories of eligibility for the death penalty this figure will surely rise, moving us further toward the 19th century.

Along with foreign governments and international human rights groups, the American press is now growing impatient with the death penalty, with major news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times, Kansas City Star, San Francisco Examiner, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, New York Times and USA Today on record opposing capital punishment. "Executions are barbaric, discriminatory, arbitrary and more costly than life imprisonment," editors of the St. Louis Post Dispatch opined recently. "They do not deter crime. They do not resurrect victims. They force us to play God, and make choices that no individual, and no government, has any business making."

And they claim innocent lives. The Chicago Tribune recently examined all 285 death penalty convictions in Illinois since capital punishment was restored 22 years ago. In almost half of those cases - 127 - new trials or sentences were ordered because of "unprofessionalism, imprecision and bias" in their prosecution. Twelve of the defendants were exonerated, and 74 others received a lower sentence. How many of those already executed were victims of the same injustices, the Tribune asked?

Long regarded an international trendsetter on social and political issues - yet with more than 555 prisoners already on death row, the most in the country - California now finds itself clearly in the backwater of human rights. The tragedy, of course, is that state-sanctioned killing is unnecessary. It's well known that states that don't practice capital punishment have lower murder rates than those that do. A safer, more effective, less expensive and far less brutal alternative exists in 34 states and the District of Columbia: Life In Prison Without Possibility of Parole.

Life sentences without parole protect public safety while sparing us the barbarity of killing our own. It teaches our children that violence will be punished, but not by emulating the violent. This seems eminently more consistent with American ideals than continuing to share the killing stage with some of the world's worst human rights violators.

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