Death Penalty and Death Row in USA

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Danish media about the Death Penalty in USA

Feature article in "Ekstra Bladet", August 6, 1997, about the case of Thomas Martin Thompson in California

"Ekstra Bladet" is the biggest Danish newspaper
The headlines say:
Death by the needle in God's Own Land

An English translation is to the right
DEATH BY THE NEEDLE
IN GOD'S OWN LAND

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 arm.

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 ones.

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.