Saturday, December 17, 2005

Together at Last: Aging and Death Penalty

I don't blog here about criminal justice or the death penalty, though they are issues with which I'm deeply involved. It's hard to tie them to what I see as the focus of this blog: Aging, particularly of my own mother, and my family's varied and crazy reactions to it. And oh yeah, my bitter war against Mormons.

But today's headlines provide a chance to bring the death penalty into the mix:

Stay of Execution Denied for Ailing Man
Judge says decisions affecting clemency bid up to governor
Cicero Estrella, Chronicle Staff Writer
December 17, 2005

A federal judge in San Francisco rejected a stay of execution Friday for a 75-year-old man who is scheduled to be executed next month at San Quentin State Prison.

Clarence Ray Allen had asked for the stay so he could be treated for a number of ailments, which would help him prepare for a clemency petition with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, said his attorney Michael Satris.

In his federal lawsuit, Allen said laser eye surgery would allow him to participate in tests that would determine if he suffers from organic brain damage. His lawyers say Allen is legally blind.

In addition, Satris said, Allen needs more time to consult with his lawyers on his clemency petition. Allen has been unavailable because he's been moved from prison to prison since suffering a heart attack Sept. 2, Satris said.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White said Schwarzenegger should be the one to decide if Allen's ill health could be a factor in his bid for clemency.

"There is no question that plaintiff is old and infirm," White wrote. "These factors may be factors to be considered in a bid for clemency. But it is not for this federal court to intrude on the prerogatives of the state executive to determine what information he requires in deciding whether to have mercy on a condemned prisoner."

Satris said, "We're disappointed with the decision, but we're still exploring our options and figuring out the best way to proceed."

Allen, who suffers from coronary artery disease and diabetes, was sentenced to death for hiring a hit man to kill three people in Fresno in 1980 while he was in prison for another murder.

He is scheduled to die by lethal injection Jan. 17, the day after his 76th birthday.

I recently left an online community of feminists I've been a part of (in one form or another) for over six years. I did this after yet another death penalty discussion became an attempt to help death penalty supporters feel better about themselves. This offended me. Deeply.

I oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. The state should not be in the business of killing, period. It has (I believe) an obligation -- a social contract -- to provide for the safety of its citizens. Executing them violates this contract.

It was as if someone had started a discussion on the merits of molesting children in certain, special circumstances. Or how certain forms of genocide are okay if genocide's used carefully. For me, the death penalty is morally wrong and utterly indefensible. This is a position it took years to form -- I grew up a few miles from my home state's death row and have friends who are survivors of violent crime. Now it's as if, having had the veil of misinformation and the retributive rhetoric of the Right stripped away, I cannot go back to the not-seeing. Ever.

So my state, having just killed Stanley Tookie Williams, is gearing up to kill a 75 year-old man who can neither see nor walk unassisted. He is no longer a threat to anyone and is not, it could be argued, the same man who went to prison all those years ago. Killing him will serve no purpose in public safety terms. The only possible explanation for this act is that it makes us "feel better." We feel "justice" has been served. "Victims" will have "closure." Hogwash. Another person will die. At the hands of my state. This time, he's old and feeble and not a celebrity like Tookie was. I doubt Jessie Jackson or Joan Baez will show up the night of his execution. He'll be just as dead as Tookie when it's over though.

And let's be careful about justifications that start with Allen's age or disability (as in, "What does it matter? He's almost dead anyway."). That's a slippery slope no one with a commitment to fairness for the elderly and people with disabilities wants to set foot on. Placing a higher value on the lives of younger, more "able-bodied" than the lives of the older and those with disabilities? We really don't want to go there. Do we?

If you want to hear from some victims who believe killing more people doesn't bring "closure," you should visit Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation. From their website:

Since the U.S. reinstated the death penalty in 1976, over 40 countries have abolished it. In December 1998, the European Parliament called for immediate and global abolition of the death penalty, with special notice to the U.S. to abandon it. Abolition is a condition for acceptance into the Council of Europe, leading countries such as Russia and Turkey to abolish the death penalty. Recently, South Africa, Canada, France and Germany have all ruled against extraditing prisoners to the U.S. if death sentences would be sought. The World Court, in a unanimous decision reached on February 5, 2003, ruled that the U.S. must delay the execution of three Mexican citizens while it investigates the cases of all 51 Mexicans on death row in the U.S. The Mexican government asserts that the U.S. has violated the Vienna Convention by not informing its citizens that they have the right to contact their consulate when arrested. The death penalty has long been a source of tension between the U.S. and countries that oppose capital punishment.

I live in a country and a state that consider killing effective social policy. Soon an elderly man with multiple disabilities will be put to death in an effort to reduce violent crime. It's enough to drive a person crazy. Or out of the country.

1 comment:

thistle said...

When I lived in Italy, there were signs at the post-office about eliminating the death penalty worldwide. The way we might have signs asking for contributions to, say, end world hunger. It was always one of the first things about my country's politics that people asked me about. Until we invaded Iraq, at least. Anyway, it was a refreshingly different atmosphere, for sure.