Penalty in USA
With any late-season luck--and the considerable contribution of the state of Texas--the United States stands to move up in the 1997 International Rankings for State Killing. According to statistics maintained by Amnesty International, in 1996 the U.S., with forty-five executions nationwide, ranked just seventh in the world, behind such havens for freedom and justice as China, the Ukraine, Russia, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. can't hope to catch China, the runaway leader at 4,173 executions last year. And the next four--from the Ukraine, at 167, to Iran, at 110 - are probably out of reach, at least in the short run. But the staunch U.S. ally and feudal dictatorship known as Saudi Arabia managed to execute only sixty-nine of its citizens in 1996.
As this issue of the Observer goes to press (late October), the U.S. record for 1997 stands at an impressive fifty-eight, with two full months yet to go.
The state of Texas alone has contributed thirty-one terminations to the national total, and is currently planning to execute eight more prisoners by the end of the year. Not all of those people will die--but for the nation, breaking seventy for 1997 is certainly not out of the question. Saudi Arabia and Iran had better look out.
Although this grisly competition has gone unremarked in the mainstream U.S. media, it has generated an international outcry, particularly in Europe.
In early October, Texas was on the itinerary of two international delegations investigating the U.S. expansion of the death penalty. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Bacre Waly Ndiaye of Senegal, visited Austin, Houston, and Huntsville as part of a three-week research trip across the U.S. (other stops included D.C., New York, Florida, and California). A few days later, Pierre Sáne, the General Secretary of Amnesty International (also an attorney from Senegal), visited death row at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, as part of his tour of the American South under the theme, "From Civil Rights Back to Human Rights."
During their visits to Texas, both men addressed the death penalty as a human rights issue, as distinct from simply a criminal justice or political matter.
In speeches across the South, Sáne spoke of the relation between the death penalty, racial discrimination, and police brutality, and the human rights standards embodied in such international agreements as the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (signed by the U.S.).
Following his Huntsville visit, Sáne noted that while "the rest of the world was turning its back on the death penalty, Texas is escalating its state killing" and accelerating the process of capital punishment.
Sáne toured the death row tiers and spoke to several prisoners, including Kenneth Ray Ransome (scheduled to be executed October 28). Said Sáne afterwards, "Never before had I met a healthy human being who knew the precise date, time, and method in which he would be killed, in cold blood.
If this does not violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, what does? The conveyor belt of death in Texas must stop."
According to Amnesty figures, one hundred countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice, while ninety-four retain it for some crimes.
Worldwide, the U.S. is among the dozen countries responsible for more than 90 percent of executions. A spokesman for Attorney General Dan Morales responded to Sáne's remarks, saying "The people of Texas support the death penalty [and] it is the responsibility of prosecutors and the attorney general to carry out the law."
Sáne noted the apparent professionalism of Huntsville prison officials, and added, "It's not [professionalism] that surprises me. It's what this professionalism reflects. You have here a machinery of death, a conveyor belt of death, and you have professionals manning it."
U.N. Special Rapporteur Ndiaye (a lawyer in private practice in Senegal) is an independent, voluntary expert, serving under the mandate of the U.N.
Human Rights Commission. He had come to the U.S., he told the Observer, to investigate many complaints the Commission had received about the U.S. criminal justice system, not only concerning the death penalty, but also charges of police brutality and excessive use of force (including killings along the U.S.Mexican border).
While in Texas he met with representatives of the Governor, the Attorney General, and Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, as well as prisoners on death row in Huntsville and various death penalty opposition groups. "I came to Texas," Ndiaye said, "because [it has] the highest level of executions in the country, and there are certainly more people on death row in Texas. They have had more executions this year than--just as an example--all the Western African states, including Nigeria."
Although the U.S. is publicly committed to a strong international human rights policy, Ndiaye said it took him two years to receive permission from the Clinton administration to visit the U.S. After another year of research and preparation, he arrived in Washington - only to discover that that the American authorities were mostly unwilling to meet with him.
He had long ago requested meetings with the President, Vice-President, Attorney General Janet Reno, members of the U.S. Mission to the U.N., and Supreme Court Justices.
But when he arrived, he was told that all of these people were busy elsewhere. "They had a year to prepare," Ndiaye remarked drily. "At the White House, I was scheduled to meet with someone from the National Security Council, but at the last minute I was told that I could only meet with his staff." In contrast, Ndiaye said, the U.S. had been quite eager for him to visit China, to investigate human rights violations there. (China has thus far refused to allow a visit.) "So I was quite disappointed not to meet any of the highest level [U.S.] officials, because it is really at this level that the decisions to ratify a convention are taken. Also, I believe that this country is so used to present human rights as a very important issue for its policy." Ndiaye concluded that he was "a little bit surprised" to see that this public concern was not reflected in the U.S. response to his mission here.
At least one Washington voice did respond loudly to Ndiaye's presence. In a letter to Bill Richardson, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms denounced Ndiaye's visit as an outrageous waste of money and an insult to the U.S. Referring to the Rapporteur's stated concern that "'many of the death sentences continue to be handed down after trials which fall short of international guarantees for a fair trial,'" Helms thundered, "Is this man confusing the United States with some other country, or is this an intentional insult to the U.S. and our nation's legal system?" Helms demanded that the U.S. provide no cooperation to Ndiaye, and proudly cited the U.S. reservations to Article 6 (concerning capital punishment) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:
"The United States reserves the right, subject to its Constitutional constraints, to impose capital punishment on any person (other than a pregnant woman) duly convicted under existing or future laws permitting the imposition of capital punishment, including such punishment for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age." According to Amnesty, since 1990 the U.S. has executed six juvenile offenders, more than all other countries combined. Ndiaye told the Observer that in the debate over the Covenant, the U.S. had particularly objected to any human rights restrictions on the execution of minors, as well as provisions urging that capital punishment be restricted to only the "most heinous" crimes.
Ndiaye told the Washington Post, "I am very surprised that a country that is usually so open and has been helpful to me on other missions, such as my attempts to investigate human rights abuses in the Congo, should consider my visit an insult." (Asked about Helms' letter, members of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. declined to comment.)
Ndiaye received similar treatment in Florida and California (where only direct intervention by the State Department enabled him to make a restricted visit to a California prison).
Somewhat surprisingly, he received a much more welcoming response in Texas. He had a brief meeting with Governor Bush, and the governor's General Counsel, Al Gonzales, described to him in detail the governor's role in the state clemency process. ("Why wouldn't we meet with him?," commented Gonzales. "He's just doing his job, and we're doing ours under Texas law.") Gonzales said Ndiaye wanted to know the precise workings of the Texas clemency procedure.
He was told that every capital case is reviewed in detail, but that under the constitution, the governor is independently allowed only one thirty-day reprieve. "Otherwise," said Gonzales, "he must follow the recommendation of the Parole Board." Gonzales acknowledged that the members of the Board of Pardons and Parole are appointed by the Governor himself.
Ndiaye also asked Gonzales why, compared to other states, Texas has had so many executions. "I pointed out to him that Texas is a big state, with a large population, and many prisoners on death row. And Texas juries have been willing to impose the death penalty."
From Austin, Ndiaye travelled to Houston, where he met with Harris County Assistant District Attorney Dan Strickland, representatives of the Mexican consulate, and members of local anti-death penalty groups.
In Huntsville, he spoke to prison officials as well as prisoners on death row. David Attwood, of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who accompanied Pierre Sáne on his trip to Huntsville and also met with Ndiaye during his visit, described the two delegations as part of a growing international movement against the death penalty. "There's more and more of a focus on Texas, in the international community," Attwood said. "Momentum is building, but I think that's only one component. The politicians are still going to be looking at the polls, and if the polls say 78 percent of the people still support it, I don't think the international pressure will have much effect. It will probably have some effect, but in terms of really changing the situation in Texas or in the United States, it's going to take more than just international attention to change it."
According to an aide who accompanied him on his U.S. trip, Ndiaye will compile his report over the next couple of months, to be issued in the spring by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Ndiaye told the Observer that while the overall international atmosphere for human rights remains precarious, particularly in regions enduring armed conflict, he is encouraged by the growing international trend away from the death penalty.
He said that in the U.S., however, the increasing emphasis on majoritarianism and "victims' rights" has moved the state in the opposite direction, towards expansion of the application and uses of the death penalty.
"One has to remember," said Ndiaye, "that at [society's beginnings], victims were the judges, themselves. If you killed someone, the family would retaliate. We have now a judicial system; I don't see that we should go back to the past. What will you do, if the victims say, 'Okay, we don't want his death, we just want him burned.'? What will you do? There are also international standards about the rights of victims--to compensation, rehabilitation, respect, compassion--but they never have the right to retaliation. There is no international standard saying, the victim has a right to retaliation. It is the role of the state, to do justice."