Death by the needle in God's own land
Feature article in Ekstra Bladet (Danish Newspaper), Aug 6, 1997
By Niels Graverholt - translated to English
The pending execution of Thomas Martin Thompson, about which Ekstra Bladet has
been informing the public for the last couple of days, was fortunately
postponed by the Federal Court of Appeals--due to the miscarriage of
justice and a lousy defense attorney, Thompson was granted a new trial.
But unfortunately Thompson's case is not unique.
Many others of the more than 3,000 inmates on death row in the USA can thank an incompetent lawyer for their fate. Take for instance, George McFarland, who was
sentenced to death in 1992 in Texas. According to a lawyer, the quality
of the evidence was less than one would demand for a parking fine.
But that did not help him because his defense attorney, John Benn, was
sleeping--literally--during important parts of the process. When Benn
answered the judge's criticism by saying that it was boring, the judge
appointed an assistant attorney, Sanford Melamed.
He accepted his colleague's continuous sleeping because "it might make the jurors feel sorry for us". Later, a court of appeals rejected it because "Melamed's
acceptance of his collegue's sleep could be a strategic move in relation
to the jury".
As long as the courts pay defense attorneys as little as $15 per hour,
one cannot, of course, expect either good or dedicated attorneys. Only
if you are O.J. Simpson and can afford to buy your own dream-team.
On the prosecution's side, no expense is spared. In most counties, the
prosecutors are elected officials; and, therefore, it is good to be able
to brag about how many people one has gotten sentenced to death.
The prosecutor in Harris County, Texas, Johnny Holmes, who is the most
'successful', is happy to invite reporters into his office to see a
plaque with the inscription "Silver Needle Society" and the names of
those from Harris County who died with the executioner's needle in their
Like many of his colleagues, Holmes has hardly achieved all of his
bloody victories by honest means. There are numerous examples of death
sentences given after trials where the prosecutors have threatened or
bribed witnesses to give false testimony, hidden evidence which was in
favor of the defendant, or manipulated in other ways--often with the
kind assistance of the locally elected police chief, who wants to
demonstrate a high conviction rate without any small-minded
consideration of whether the right man was caught and convicted.
The judges in the majority of the states are elected officials. With
growing public demand for steeper penalties, they are not elected on
their professional qualifications or ethics, but on their willingness to
send people to death row.
ake, for instance, Judge Stephen Mansfield, who won a seat in the Texas Court of Appeals in 1994. He had misrepresented his own qualifications, had been fined for practicing law without a license, and virtually no criminal law experience. But during his campaign, he swore to uphold more death sentences. Now all appeal
cases in Texas cross his desk.
A counterbalance to this politicizing in the states is the so-called
"habeas corpus", in which a federal court with apointed judges review
the cases to reveal possible miscarriages of justice--for instance,
false testimony, withholding evidence, etc.
Over the years, this has saved many who were wrongfully convicted. But after the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center, the Congress wanted to demonstrate
that it had guts. So it passed--with the support of Clinton -- the "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act".
Nobody believed that the law could stop a new lunatic like McVeigh. The most important part of this new law were a number of restrictions making it almost impossible for a defendant sentenced to death to have the federal courts
review their case--and, thereby, made him subject to the bloodthirsty
prosecutors and judges in the states.
It is quite understandable that frightened Americans request a solution
to the growing problems of violent crime.
But nobody has demonstrated any proof that the executioner can solve the problem. On the contrary, the 38 states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than the other 12 states. And the murder rate increases faster in the states
with the death penalty. Besides, reliable studies have shown a significant increase in the murder rate right after a well-publicized execution. All reliable research indicates that a sentence of life without parole is a better tool to reduce the number of murders.
The need to consider the family of the victim--the revenge--is also
being used as an argument. But among serious professionals, it is
normally accepted that this desire for revenge often blocks the family's
ability to concentrate on getting through the grief process in a
constructive way, which is essential for peole who have lost their loved
Many favor the death penalty because they do not want to feed a murderer
for many years. But for the money it costs to run a death penalty trial
and an execution, 3-4 murderers could be incarcerated for 40 years. Or
salaries could be paid to 50 extra police officers, who would probably
have a prevatative effect on crime.
But apparently all kinds of arguments are lost on the supporters of the
death penalty. Thus a number of surveys show that a great deal of the
respondents said "yes" to the death penalty--and "no" when asked if it
had a preventative effect....
So, unfortunately, we have to face the risk that both the 3,000
inhabitants of death row and many more will have to lend their veins to
the executioner's needle before civilization reaches God's Own Land.