Don't Let Them Ignore The Issue Of The Death Penalty

Confronting The Candidates

By: Marlene Martin

Both presidential candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, are sticking to the tried-and-true method for politicians -- to pose as tough on crime. They know that this stand has won votes in the past.

But this year might be different. This is the year that Illinois Gov. George Ryan -- a pro-death penalty Republican who is Bush's campaign chairman in Illinois -- called a moratorium on executions in the state because of growing concern that innocent people could be executed. This is also the year that President Clinton -- another staunch supporter of the death penalty -- was forced to agree to consider a moratorium on federal executions. And this is also a year that has seen an erosion of confidence in police departments as the practice of "racial profiling" gains national attention alongside the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles and the gunning down of unarmed Black men in New York City.

This year might not be the best year for politicians to be so pigheaded about being pro-death penalty!

In all likelihood, Gore and Bush will try to duck this issue. We want to make that difficult for them. We want to confront these candidates at as many public events as possible to raise this issue.

To George W. Bush, we want to ask a number of questions:

Bush has said that he is sure that no innocent person has ever been executed in Texas. But how can he be so sure?

Does Bush really think everyone on death row in Texas got a fair and decent trial? Texas doesn't even have a statewide public defender system, so poor defendants are instead parceled off to lawyers who get assigned to take cases by a judge. Many of these lawyers have no experience in trying capital cases. One federal judge, after hearing incidents in which these court-appointed attorneys slept in court or abused cocaine, called the Texas system a "farce" and a "travesty."

No one know this better than Calvin Burdine, who spent 16 years on death row in Texas before a federal judge threw out his conviction because his trial attorney slept through much of his trial.

Then there's Randall Dale Adams and Clarence Brandley, two former Texas prisoners who came within days of being executed before they were exonerated and freed. With the shoddy methods of justice in Texas, there are surely countless others who didn't get the help that Randall and Clarence got. We agree with Clarence's advice to Gov. Bush: "Just sign the papers to put a stop to capital punishment."

We have another question for Bush: He claims to be a "compassionate conservative." Then how could he make fun of Karla Faye Tucker when she pleaded for her life before her execution in 1999? She never denied her guilt, but even supporters of the death penalty were moved by how she had changed her life, becoming deeply religious. Bush's response? To mock her plea for mercy, imitating her in an interview by whimpering, "Please, don't kill me."

We also have a few questions we'd like to ask Al Gore:

Gore has an image of caring -- about environmental issues and so on. But not about the death penalty. Asked about the question of innocent people being put to death, Gore said in a recent interview: "I think that any honest and candid supporter of the death penalty has to acknowledge that that support comes in spite of the fact that there will inevitably be some mistakes. And that's a harsh concession to make, but I think it's the only honest concession to make."

Since capital punishment was reintroduced in the U.S., one innocent person has been freed for every seven who have been executed. Are these the "odds" that we should have to live with?

Plus, Gore has been part of an administration over the last eight years that has made it much more difficult for death row inmates to appeal their sentences -- by severely restricting their recourse to hearings in the federal courts.

Why isn't Gore calling for all states to allow death row inmates access to DNA testing? Today, only two states allow testing, even though seven innocent people have been freed largely on the basis of DNA testing.

Why isn't Gore concerned with the racism evident on federal death row? Seventy-five percent of those on federal death row are non-white -- far beyond their percentage in the population. Isn't it obvious that racism is a factor in how the death penalty is applied in federal cases?