Death Penalty and Death Row in USA

Fight the Death
Penalty in USA

German and French newspapers about the DP in US

The following articles from German newspapers have been translated by Thomas Dornheck -

Magdeburger Volksstimme, Feb. 25, 1999; page 2

Gas chamber, poisonious needle, electric chair, gallows and much more is being offered. The abundance of ideas by the state to carry out the death penalty knows few boundaries not even in the USA. The USA is in the bad company of states which the USA righteously accuse of violating human rights.
There's no justification for the execution of criminals. Rising numbers of executions don't result in a lower crime rate, and the money argument doesn't strike either. Death by the public hand is much more expensive than lifelong imprisonment. Erroneous verdicts do, on the other hand, only give credence to the suspicion it's only the punishment for having had a bad attorney. Causes and chances don't play any role anymore.
The rage, the lust for vengeance precludes any logic and produces inferior instincts which a broad basis of supporters wants to see satisfied. Politicians are barely able to withstand this rage against the will of voters. But the death penalty isn't about judging people.
It's state-sanctioned murder.


Leipziger Volkszeitung, Feb. 25, 1999; page 3

The execution was postponed, but the fate of robbery-murderer LaGrand in the USA remains uncertain. However, the delay only serves to put the case even more in the spotlight of public attention and it reveals that capital punishment leads America into moral and political deadlock.
While other murderers or drug dealers are being sent to their demise without much ado, this case brings some complications. The LaGrands are considered to be German citizens because of their German-born mother and their dual citizenship.
The pardons board didn't care that US authorities contravened diplomatic rules. Not interesting was, too, that the murderers were not even 20 years old at the time of the crime. The clemency bid by the chancellor fell on deaf ears as well as the more fundamental protests against the death penalty by human rights activists or the pope did.
In the mostly Christian-orientated USA, few care whether executions violate biblical commandments. And though some executions later proved to have been a mistake, this is solely seen as regrettable error.
Meting out death isn't punishment. It doesn't give offenders the chance to a lasting remorse; it reduces atonement and painful imprisonment. To carry out an execution only stills public thirst for revenge. Despite the resumption of executions in 1976, crime rates soared shortly thereafter.
The LaGrands won their reprieve by a trick. Instead of poison or an electric jolt they demanded Auschwitz gas. This violates the taste of politically correct Americans and produces doubt in the judiciary. Maybe the first step to re-think the policy of the death penalty.

Berliner Zeitung, Feb. 25, 1999; page 4

One had already started to like them. How they day after day looked down to us from the same blurred mug shots - somehow looking sad, holding identification cards with their name on it: Karl and Walter LaGrand. Convicted of murder by the US court, condemned to be German for all eternity by German politicians and journalists. What suddenly reaches as patriotic caretaking the brothers who live in the USA for 30 years, can't be explained by humanitarian activism. It seems to be just kind of an outdated blood-based solidarity which is based on our ancient laws of citizenship, which the same politicians want to abolish who now fly to Arizona to see the last prayers. The latest was Green Party MP Claudia Roth who visited one of the murderers, who "like her" was born in Augsburg. They couldn't communicate in German, however.
Roth's colleagues at home meanwhile take on the role of judges over the American moral, but demand at the same time the deportation of vandalizing Kurds - even if they live for 30 years in Berlin-Kreuzberg and would face the death penalty in Turkey.
It remains the realization that both societies are bound to one pre-modern legal practice: While the American likes the execution, the German likes his ancient citizenship laws.


Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, Feb. 26, 1999, p. 2

The macabre prelude and the cruel spectacle of Karl LaGrand's execution:
The case doesn't deserve interest because the man was many years ago born in Germany. Whether white or black, whether American or European - that isn't the question. The shame is the shocking cat-and-mouse game preceding his death. And the scandal is the death penalty itself: that a democratically constituted society with Christian values lives out its need for vengeance in such a perverse way.
One doesn't even have to quote ethical and moral concerns to expose the abomination of this practice. Plain statistics alone prove that the deterrent effect doesn't exist.
But this is exactly the point. The call for the executioner expresses a fatal misunderstanding: Barbaric crimes can't be prevented when the state itself is sliding downwards to the level of degradation -- the same state whose self-respect was based on respect for life; also for life which took another life.
Despite the clear obligation to toughness on crime: The death penalty must stay a taboo. In this respect, politicians shall not listen to the people's voice. Instead, they will have to ask themselves if there's something wrong if the call for it is getting louder.

Commentary in Muenchner Merkur, Munich, Feb. 26, 1999


(...) The murderer Karl LaGrand really wasn't a character whose death resulted in a lot of compassion. His execution, however, put a glaring light on the circumstance that the USA experiences a macabre wave of executions. The late satisfaction by the relatives of the bank manager, who 17 years ago was murdered by the criminal with the German passport and his brother, may be understandable -- but it can't serve as justification for the state-ordered death of a human being.


Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich, Feb. 25, 1999

A stay of execution would barely make the LaGrand case less gruesome.

(...) The truly indignating question is why the USA as the only Western state still uses the death penalty; the practice is increasing annually. Because it is impossible that Americans are for some mysterious reason more brutal, more vengeful and more hardened than the rest of humanity, all this can only be explained by a big deficit in the organization of the rule of law.
This deficit, however, has often been recognized and described: It has mostly to do with the following:
That the American judiciary is politicized to a highly unhealthy degree, that top judges are elected by the people, that especially inexorable prosecutors are being rewarded with getting good posts, that governors believe they cannot afford executive clemency if they want to be re-elected.
From Europe - and some success by the pope cannot change that - there are few chances to moderate this aweful populism: The Americans himself will have to do that, and it is not the case that the liberal America, his journalists, jurists and filmmakers, would be silent on this issue.
We Europeans, however, can only state abhorred how thin the layer of civilization is and how necessary it is to save it. If it is true that atavistic needs for retaliation, for bloodshed are somehow inside of all people, it is even the more necessary to civilize these needs.
Well, nobody knows what would happen in Germany if a political party or a politician would start a petition, fighting for the appointment of hangmen. One can grasp with his hands what would go down the drain then:
Nothing less than human dignity. But no state of the world can afford such a high price.

Editorial in Le Monde, 6 March 1999

Odell Barnes Must Be Saved

By Jack Lang, former Minister of Culture, Chairman of
the Foreign Affairs Committee in the National Assembly

Odell Barnes is one of the 3,547 convicts waiting on the death rows of 38 American states. His story does not interest the media or the Hollywood script writers. However, it is typical.
Odell Barnes is poor. And black, like 42% of those sentenced to death. He was accused of having killed his girlfriend in 1989. At the end of a short trial - rushed investigation, carefully selected jurors, court appointed lawyer, judge and prosecutor elected by an anti-abolitionist population - he was found guilty in 1991. He appealed, on the basis of the 8th and 14th amendments, which, respectively, prohibit "cruel and unusual punishment" and proclaim the right to a fair trial.
In spite of great material difficulties - Congress has done away with the subsidies for prisoners' aid organizations - he got a private investigation done which showed that witnesses had been omitted or suborned and that the forensic examinations (blood analysis, DNA test) were unreliable. But what chance does he have of being heard by the Texas Board of Pardons which hasn't commuted a single death sentence in twenty years? The members of this board, named by the governor, don't even take the trouble to meet to study the commutation requests: they vote by mail.
Odell Barnes is incarcerated at Huntsville, a little Texas town which lives off the prison industry: 35,000 inhabitants, 23,000 prisoners divided among eight prisons, including Ellis 1 which houses death row.
Even if California has the most death row inmates (513), Texas is the champion state for executions. Since the death penalty was reestablished in 1977 after a five year suspension by the Supreme Court until the States adopted legislation conforming to the Federal Constitution, a third of all executions carried out in America have been carried out in Texas: 163.
This number rivals Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Along with Odell Barnes, 463 other convicts await death. Among them, 21 foreigners, for whom Texas has not respected the Vienna Convention which stipulates that a prisoner must be able to contact his country's consular authorities. Canada learned, fifteen years after the sentence, that one of its citizens had been sentenced to death. A Mexican had to sign a confession written in English, a language he did not understand.

At Huntsville, executions follow an unchanging ritual. In the presence of ten witnesses, five journalists and a priest installed in neighboring rooms with windows, the prisoner is strapped to a table, put on an IV solution. He utters his last words. In another room, behind a one-way mirror, the executioner, an anonymous volunteer, injects the chemical solution which puts the condemned person to sleep, blocks his breathing and stops his heart. Death follows in six to seven minutes.

Is the death penalty that "speedy and sure punishment" talked about by George Bush, governor of Texas and son of the former president, when the condemned wait nine years and nine months on the average before being executed, even more than twenty years in some cases? For Joseph Faulder, the execution has even been stayed nine times a few minutes before it was to be carried out.

The death penalty is neither speedy nor sure: it is cruel, ineffective, unjust, inhuman. It is not justice, it is vengeance. It is the absurd eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Should we then rob the thief? Run down the drunken driver? Burn the arsonist? Rape the rapist? Torture the torturer?

It does not deter crime, otherwise murders would long ago have ceased in Texas where executions have become common. f a financial argument were acceptable in such an area, on could argue that it doesn't even save the community money: the whole procedure costs 2 1/2 million dollars!
It accentuates social and racial inequalities. For the same crime, a black has four times as many chances as a white of being sentenced to death.
As it is not infallible, it strikes the innocent. According to the University of Chicago Law School, out of some 500 executions carried out in the United States since 1977, at least 75 involved people later proved innocent. Judge Gerald Kogan admitted having had "serious doubts" about the guilt of some of the 25 people electrocuted during his twelve years as Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. He is even sure of the innocence of a few of them. One single mistake totally disqualifies the death penalty. How many innocent people are there on death row today?
It is time for America to finally give up the death penalty which it is the last western country to apply widely. It is one of 6 countries in the world, with Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen to execute convicts who were minors at the time of the crime (13 since 1977).
The United States also does not hesitate to execute the mentally ill (2 in 1998).
Total punishment excluding rehabilitation and redemption, the death penalty must be banished, especially since modern societies have "non bloody" means of protecting themselves. The American people also seem to have evolved since the execution of Karla Tucker in February 1998: half the Texans did not want the death of this model prisoner - the first woman executed since 1863 - and 44% of the Americans would prefer life in prison without possibility of parole to the death penalty. The death penalty is unworthy of a great democracy which respects the human person and is based on the values of life, justice and forgiveness.

France finally understood. Since the abolition of capital punishment in 1981 by Francois Mitterrand, French justice has certainly continued to make mistakes, but they are not irreparable.
That is why Odell Barnes must be saved.