The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

United States:
The Death Penalty:
Legalized Lynching

Jul 17, 1999

Early in May, the Michigan legislature rejected a proposal to re-establish the death penalty for murders committed in Michigan.

The fact that such a resolution was even introduced is in itself indicative of the generally regressive political climate which exists today in the United States. Michigan, which prohibited capital punishment in 1846, was the first government anywhere in the world to do so. It has not executed anyone for over 160 years. By votes of the state legislature or the electorate, this ban was upheld eight times in the first 60 years of this century; it was finally made part of the new state constitution passed in 1964.

Even in Michigan, with its long history of opposition to capital punishment, the ban has never been free from challenge. But the situation is much worse in the country as a whole. Today, there are only 12 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, which do not employ execution. And their numbers are dwindling. Since 1995, three more states, including New York state, have reinstituted the death penalty. And Massachusetts, by only one vote, turned down a proposal to resurrect it in 1997.

The U.S. is today the only one of the so-called democracies which still utilizes capital punishment. England suspended it in 1965, abolishing it four years later; Canada suspended it in 1967, finally abolishing it in 1976. When France, in 1981, abolished capital punishment, all of western Europe had turned its back on this savage practice. Today, more than 100 countries have either abolished the death penalty in law or have suspended it in fact.

"Arbitrary and Capricious": The Supreme Court

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out all existing state and federal capital punishment legislation, prohibiting the execution of anyone who had been convicted under those laws, transforming their sentences to life imprisonment. There had already been a de facto moratorium on carrying out death penalty sentences since the middle of 1967.

The Court ruled, in 1972, Furman v. Georgia, that the "arbitrary and capricious manner" in which the death penalty had been imposed and applied violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment." It pointed out that extreme racial and social bias had made the process arbitrary in the extreme. And it cautioned,"No matter how careful courts are, the possibility of perjured testimony, mistaken honest testimony, and human error remain all too real. We have no way of judging how many innocent persons have been executed, but we can be certain there were some."

Nonetheless, the Court never ruled against capital punishment in and of itself. It simply deferred the issue to a later date, invalidating existing laws, while setting out guidelines that states or the federal government must meet if they were to re-establish capital punishment.

Only four years later, in 1976, the Court upheld new laws passed by Georgia, Florida and Texas, thus giving its seal of approval to capital punishment. Other states, as well as the federal government, rushed to rewrite their statutes to conform to the Georgia law. Even Rhode Island, which, in 1852, had been the second state to abandon capital punishment, now resurrected it. By the early-1980s, 35 states had reinstituted the death penalty.

In a critical 1987 ruling, McClesky v. Kemp, the Court openly turned its back on the way it had raised the question in 1972. It agreed that the death penalty continued to be imposed in a discriminatory manner. BUT the Court now decreed that each individual appellant must prove that systemic discrimination directly affected the outcome of his or her own case, something which the Court repeatedly has recognized is almost impossible to do.

Since McClesky v. Kemp, the Court has spewed out a series of rulings on the death penalty, one after another, reinforcing the very arbitrariness of which the Court had once complained and making it harder for a condemned person to get a hearing.

In 1977, capital punishment was resumed, with the execution by firing squad of Gary Gilmore in Utah, who had asked to have his sentence imposed, refusing any more appeals. Starting slowly at first, the rush to execution continues to accelerate. It took over eleven years after Gilmore for the first 100 people to be executed. Since then, another 457 people have been killed by the state. Almost 4,000 more people today sit on Death Row, awaiting execution, almost seven times as many as were there in 1972 when the old laws were invalidated.

Not only is capital punishment not withering away, it is flourishing like an out-of-control poisonous weed. This country, in which lynching played such an important role for over a century, continues to carry out its own brand of "lynch law," perfectly legal, and perfectly abominable.

A Barbaric Reaction to Barbarism

Revolutionaries share the indignation that the population feels when confronted by violent crime. It’s intolerable that someone would kill another person for money, or prompted by sadistic impulses or even just in a rage, drunken or otherwise. Whether the victim of murder or other violence is a woman or a man, a child or an adult—it makes no difference. Most people feel revulsion. It is the revulsion of civilized humanity looking at behavior appropriate to a barbaric past.

We think that society ought to protect itself against such barbaric acts. But it is not by coldly murdering a murderer, that we can make barbarism retreat.

The electric chair, the firing squad, the gallows, the gas chamber and the supposedly "more humane" lethal injection—these methods the state has devised to put someone to death do not and cannot protect us. Nor can prisons, courts, police and other parts of the state apparatus seal us off from crime. This hierarchical society, which considers some people worth less than others; which uses money to measure everything; this society whose driving force is the pursuit of profit and which considers unbridled individualism as a virtue—such a society can only produce contempt for other people, sadism, crime. It is this society which creates and will continue to create murderers.

To protect ourselves, we must change this society, getting at the very roots of crime.

The death penalty, far from dissuading crime, simply reinforces criminality. An execution is simply one more crime, one more murder and all the more horrible because it is legal and coldly premeditated.

They Are Pushing Vengeance, Not Protection

For years, the politicians argued that the death penalty is a necessary deterrent, that the example of one murderer executed will prevent further murderers from acting.

In fact, all the studies show the reverse. States and countries without the death penalty do not have a higher rate of murder. In fact, this country, the only of the so-called democracies to maintain capital punishment, has by far the highest murder rate of any of them, four times higher than Europe as a whole, 9 times higher than Britain, 11 times higher than Japan. Inside this country, the murder rate in states with capital punishment is on average almost twice as high as it is in those states without the death penalty.

Today, most criminal justice professionals oppose the death penalty. A 1994 poll of criminologists found that over 80% believe that capital punishment does NOT deter criminal activity. A 1995 poll of the nation’s police chiefs showed that over two thirds of them believe that the death penalty does NOT reduce the number of homicides; a 1996 poll showed that only one percent believe it is an effective crime fighting tool.

If capital punishment continues to be used, it’s not because it is efficient at fighting crime or preventing more violence. Execution simply amounts to vengeance. Calling for the Old Testament prescription of an "eye for an eye," as many politicians love to do, amounts only to a demand for revenge.

The last public execution took place in this country in 1934 in Kentucky. By all accounts, the hanging was a festive event. Twenty thousand people watched as a black man was legally lynched.

Since then, we have supposedly become more civilized. Supposedly. In reality, the news media, by recounting all the gory details, brings each new execution to our dinner tables with the six o’clock news. Politicians and officials gloat over all the vile details of the condemned person’s last minutes.

The families of murder victims are being pushed to attend the execution of the murderer: it will give them "closure" or so the authorities promise. Rows of chairs are set up for representatives of the media. Politicians often worm their way in, looking for the chance to make a grand pronouncement.

When Pedro Medina was executed in Florida in 1997, the electric chair "malfunctioned," to the point that he was set on fire, with flames leaping out of his head several times before he was finally killed. The Florida attorney general, Robert Butterworth, who watched, "humorously" dubbed the electric chair, "Old Sparky." Afterward, he applauded this horrific execution, hoping it would serve as a "good example."

Thus gloating, the chief criminal "justice" official in the state appealed to the most sadistic kind of voyeurism. He is not the only one to do so. Newspapers are filled with vicious comments made by officials each time another person is put to death.

Gary Nelson lived on Georgia’s Death Row for 11 years before he was able to establish his innocence and have his conviction overturned. During that time, fifteen of his fellow prisoners were executed. Nelson, when freed, described the situation: "The burnt flesh is something I will never forget. It was horrible the way they let us smell him cooking." A Georgia legislator, when asked about this situation, replied that the condemned would not have smelt it if they hadn’t put themselves in the situation to await execution.

Executions are this day’s Roman circus; the state’s arena is the death chamber where it sacrifices the lives of ITS victims.

Still as "Arfitrary" as Ever

The death penalty is being imposed today in as random, arbitrary and discrimimatory a fashion as it was in the years leading up to Furman v. Georgia. The innumerable studies made since executions resumed, many of which have been commissioned by one or another level or branch of the government, all demonstrate this.

First of all, the likelihood of execution depends in great measure on the area of the country. Four out of every five executions are carried out in the South. Texas, by itself, has accounted for almost one-third of all executions carried out in this country. And Harris County, in which Houston is located, accounts for one third of the inmates currently sitting on Death Row in Texas. Such an enormous difference can only mean that capital punishment continues to be meted out arbitrarily.

Then there are the personal whims of particular judges and prosecutors. For example, Philadelphia sends almost 11 times as many people to Death Row as Pittsburgh does, even though it has only three times as many murders. But in Philadelphia, the prosecutor’s office asks for the death penalty in over half of all cases. Moreover, the Pennsylvania judge who has bragged that he sentences more defendants to death than any other judge sits on the bench in Philadelphia—Albert Sabo, infamous for his part in the railroading of Mumia Abu-Jamal. In fact, Sabo alone is responsible for over one-fifth of all death sentences in the whole state. (We could note, with some irony, that Philadelphia was once the center of opposition to the death penalty—of course, that was in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, before Philadelphia became as "civilized" as it is today.)

The people who decide whether to ask for or to apply the death penalty—the prosecutors, the judges and other officials—are people usually filled with prejudices. And it is these prejudices which often decide who will go to the electric chair or other instrument of torture and death, and who will end up in a cell, if not even free.

Prosecutors are much more ready to ask for the death penalty when the victim is white. Less than half of all murder victims are white, but four times as many people are executed for murdering a white person as for murdering a black person. And what conclusion can we draw from that? Obviously, the state puts a higher value on the life of a white human being than that of a black human being.

When the person convicted of murdering a white person is black, the likelihood of a death sentence is especially strong. In the 20 years between 1977 and 1996, 84 black defendants have been executed for murdering a white person, and only four white defendants have been executed for murdering a black person—that is, over 20 times as many. The number of whites murdered by blacks is two and a half times as high—not 20 times as high. So what account for the enormous disproportion here? Quite obviously, racism is at work.

In all cases, black defendants are much more likely to receive the death penalty than are white ones. A 1998 study carried out in Pennsylvania showed that a black defendant had almost a four times as high a chance of being executed as did a white defendant, when all other factors were the same.

"Them without the Capital get the Punishment"

Finally, one’s social class is more important than any factor associated with the crime itself in determining whether a death sentence will be imposed—more important than the severity of the crime, more important than the past criminal record of the defendant, more important than the unquestionable certainty of the proof against the accused.

Effectively, this is what the American Bar Association was admitting when it said that the death penalty is assessed not against those who have committed the worst crimes, but against those who are given the worst lawyers.

It is obviously the poor who get the worst lawyers. A study made by New York state found that it takes, on average, $600,000 to provide a proper defense in a case with a capital murder charge, given the amount of time required, the going rate a competent lawyer would bill for such work and the money needed for investigators and forensic experts. Even workers who are relatively well off can’t come up with that kind of money; they get a lawyer who provides a much less than adequate defense. The poor are left with a court-appointed lawyer who is given a couple thousand dollars only—or sometimes, even, nothing.

The difference that legal representation can make is illustrated in the recent case of two half-brothers accused of the same robbery and murder in Kentucky, Harold McQueen and Keith Burnell. Burnell’s father, who is wealthy, paid for a very skilled private attorney; McQueen had a court-appointed lawyer, who received only $1,000 for his efforts. The case against Burnell was no stronger than the case against McQueen. Nonetheless, McQueen was the one sentenced to death. By the time he was executed in 1997, his half-brother was out on parole.

Of the nearly four thousand people sitting on Death Row, only a couple dozen are people with any means. Over 90% of people facing charges for capital murder could not even afford their own lawyer. That isn’t to say that over 90% of people who are accused of murder are poor. Prosecutors simply do not ask for the death penalty for people who are wealthy.

Those who direct the "justice" system are filled with social prejudice, favoring the wealthy, despising the poor population, including the working class. This plays an incalculable part in the decisions of who lives and who dies.

Innocent But Put to Death Anyway

Twelve men, condemned to death in the state of Illinois, have been proved, in the last 12 years, to have been mistakenly convicted. In every case, the conviction turned around some kind of police or prosecutorial misconduct or both suborning to perjury by witnesses known to be lying about the case; submitting falsified evidence; hiding evidence which exonerated the defendants; a level of isolation, sleep deprivation, harassment and threats so intense and lengthy that they brought defendants to confess falsely.

Eventually all 12 had their convictions overturned. But these 12 men spent between three and 18 years on Death Row awaiting execution before they were finally freed. Most spent more than 10 years.

Only one of the 12 in Illinois was freed because of the ordinary workings of the system. The other 11 were freed because various opponents of the death penalty stepped in to take up their cases: a journalism professor at Northwestern, with his whole class which did the research; a law professor with his class; the NAACP; and the Illinois Death Penalty Resource Center, which is one of the centers which is about to be deprived of all federal funding.

Illinois is not an anomaly. Since 1973, 80 people in the U.S. have been released from Death Row, not as the result of a "technicality," but with substantive proof of their innocence. More may have been freed in Illinois than elsewhere, but this probably only means that there were more outside advocates ready to take up a case in Illinois.

In fact, no one has any idea how many innocent people today sit on death row, and even less of an idea of the number executed who went to their death for crimes they did not commit.

Obviously, Congress, which cut off funding to centers handling death penalty appeals and put severe limits on appeals, could care less.

As for the Supreme Court, that supposed bulwark of rights, it has several times refused to consider overwhelming proof of innocence on technical grounds. In 1993, Leonel Herrera was executed despite a confession by another man, and strongly exonerating evidence, including testimony from a former Texas state judge who witnessed the murder. In denying Herrera’s appeal, the Court ruled that there is no constitutional right to a new trial, even if new evidence of innocence is later discovered, when the original trial is free from procedural errors, and all regular appeals have been exhausted. In so ruling, the Court established a new standard for evidence, one that means many more innocent people will go to their deaths. In 1997, the Court refused to consider new DNA evidence indicating Joseph O’Dell’s innocence, on the grounds that Virginia law says that any evidence found 21 days later than the end of the trial is inadmissable. O’Dell was executed.

Most people falsely convicted on capital murder charges went through trials and appeals marked by what is politely called, "government misconduct," that is, the blatant, conscious framing up of an innocent person.

Certainly much of this government "misconduct" is simply done to get a conviction for a case which is bringing heat down on the police. Without any real leads, the police or prosecutors manufacture a case where there is none. Who is picked out to play the role of the accused? Obviously, cops and prosecutors are not about to frame up a wealthy person. It is the poor, the disadvantaged, often black or Latino, who are ground up in some official’s desire to "clear the books." In many cases, the state’s nominee for execution is mentally retarded or homeless, someone without any links in the community.

Of course, there are always the other kind of frame-ups, those in which the government tries to set an example for social movements or at least to take vengeance on them.

Mumia Abu-Jamal today stands falsely accused of murder because he was an outspoken critic of the Philadelphia police department, one of the most racist in the country. He is only the latest in a long line of militants treated as criminal defendants because of their political activity, stretching from the Haymarket martyrs to the IWW to the black militants of the 1960s and ’70s.

Playing Politics with Death

Since 1976, the Supreme Court has openly been going in a more and more reactionary direction. Many people explain this by pointing to the changing composition of the Court, as its older members, appointed by Democratic presidents, were replaced by judges appointed by Republican presidents.

In fact, the Democrats have as bloodthirsty a record as do the Republicans when it comes to capital punishment.

The Philadelphia prosecutor’s office, which has one of the worst records in the country on this question, has been run for years by Democrats. Philadelphia’s current mayor, Ed Rendell, a rising Democratic Party spokesperson, was the prosecutor whose office prepared training videos for new prosecutors in which they were advised to eliminate all prospective jurors who are black. He also helped engineer the frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Republican George Bush may have used, in 1988, that infamous election ad deploring the fact that Willie Horton escaped execution. But Clinton, in 1992, interrupted campaigning to rush back to Arkansas so he could sign the death warrant allowing the execution of a severely brain-damaged man to proceed.

The Democratic Party’s 1996 election platform included the following boast: "We established the death penalty for nearly 60 violent crimes, including murder of a law enforcement officer, and we signed a law to limit appeals." Democrats also sponsored the bills cutting off all funding to death penalty centers which until now have been one of the main defenders of innocent people condemned to death.

Even Democrats who once stood against capital punishment have been rushing to the other side. Andrew Young, former aide to Martin Luther King, for years followed King in opposing the death penalty. As mayor of Atlanta, he proclaimed a "Death Penalty Awareness Day," and he supported briefs which were filed with the Supreme Court opposing the death penalty. But by 1990, he had changed his position. When running for governor, he even found it politic to proclaim, "The state has got to have the right to put mad dogs to death."

The rush to reimpose the death penalty does not come from the Republicans alone. The two parties, in fact, seem locked in a contest to see which can most strongly support capital punishment. The mark of their complete cynicism is that they play with the death of human beings in pursuit of electoral success.

In this time period, when the laboring population is buffeted by an ever worsening situation, the drive of this society, tossing people out of work, lowering wages can only lead to higher levels of crime. The fact that capital punishment, this barbaric relic, still exists today reflects the fact that this society oozes crime and violence from its very pores. With no answer to give to the growth of criminality—and this the politicians could not have since they are not ready to check the capitalists’ drive for more profit—the politicians cynically rev up support for killing people, innocent or not, often in the most demeaning way. Their public statements are filled with contempt for human life—at least as much as the contempt shown by someone who murders, and this contempt is coldly calculated.

State Senator David Jaye, when asked about his aims in introducing the capital punishment amendment in Michigan, proclaimed, "I’m pro-life, but I’m pro-innocent life. Let the baby grow up - to be a Leonardo da Vinci, or a Charles Manson." When one of the reporters raised the question of what to do if he grows up to be a Charles Manson, Jaye responded, "Fry him!"

Even the execution of innocent men does not horrify the advocates of capital punishment. They present it simply as the price we must pay to get rid of crime. Arizona state Representative Leslie Johnson proclaimed, from the floor of the state legislature: "If we do away with these people, if we do have the death penalty and if you are a sex offender, you’re just out of here—dead, gone. And if we get a few innocent people, fine and dandy with me. I’ll take the percentage, folks, because I don’t want to put my children at risk anymore."

The percentages, of course, work much more in the favor of the wealthy, much more against the poor and the disadvantaged.

An Issue Taken Up by the Working Class and the Oppressed

Opposition to the death penalty never came from the politicians of this country. The few periods when imposition of the death penalty declined and when some states legally banned it were times when social movements took up the issue. And generally, the destruction or decline of those movements brought a new upsurge of capital punishment.

The first challenge came in Philadelphia and more broadly Pennsylvania, as part of the opposition to British rule. In the late 1600s, the Pennsylvania colony abolished capital punishment for all offenses except murder. But Britain, which imposed the death penalty for 13 different offenses, soon reimposed it, using it in the colonies to reinforce its tax collecting powers and to suppress "rebellion," which was one of those capital offenses, along with idolatry, witchcraft, blasphemy, statutory rape (which effectively meant at that point, adultery), among other things. After the revolution, Pennsylvania, effectively dominated by the small farmers who had been the troops of the American Revolution, once again revoked the death penalty for everything but murder, and further distinguished between premeditated murder, which carried the death penalty, and all other kinds, which did not.

The next challenge to the death penalty came from the anti-slavery movement, in the period leading up to and immediately after the Civil War. The first states to fully abolish the death penalty were states where the movement to abolish slavery or of the small farmers against the extension of slavery was strong: Michigan, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Maine, Kansas, Iowa, and Colorado.

Opposition to capital punishment once more grew up at the end of the 19th century with the growth of the populist movement of poor farmers in Mid-Western, border and plains states, and it extended in those same areas along with the growth of the Socialist Party and the IWW.

The working class movement took a special interest in the question since it was coming under vicious attacks during these years, with many of its militants targeted for execution on manufactured murder charges: the Haymarket Martyrs, August Spies, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel, leaders of the growing workers’ movement for the 8-hour day; Arturo Giovannitti and Joseph Ettor, leaders of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence Massachusetts; Joe Hill, executed in Utah in 1915, as part of the government’s ferocious prosecution of the IWW.

By 1917, just before U.S. entry into World War I, nine more states had outlawed the death penalty. Puerto Rico, held in a semi-colonial status, did the same thing. But with the advent of the war, five of the nine states quickly repealed the ban.

In the post-World-War-I period, new attacks rained down on a working class movement trying to build up its organizations. Tom Mooney and Warren Billings, who had led workers protests against the First World War, were tried on capital murder charges, but acquitted; Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927; the leaders of the 1928 Gastonia textile strike were indicted on murder charges.

The Communist Party during its early years organized a far reaching defense effort for those accused, headed by militants like James Cannon, with a history in the IWW, and William Foster, from the AFL. At the same time, these efforts to support particular militans who were accused also took on the issue of crime and punishment in this capitalist society.

It was something which the growing movement for the CIO, for the most part, did not do. Even as the number of executions took on horrific proportions, opposition to the death penalty waned. In the decade of the 1930s, almost 1700 people were legally executed; another 1300 in the 1940s.

By the mid-1950s, only Michigan, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Maine, North Dakota, Minnesota and the territory of Puerto Rico maintained the ban on capital punishment.

It took the advent of the civil rights movement in the 1950s to raise some of these questions again. One of the targets of the black movement was the death penalty, and more broadly the question of prisons, punishment and the criminal "justice" system, which reeked of the racism pervading society.

By 1970, 14 states, plus Puerto Rico, had again abolished the death penalty. Most other states sharply reduced the number of crimes for which death could be imposed. And fewer and fewer executions were being carried out, even in those states which maintained capital punishment on their books. The decade of the 1960s saw fewer than 200 people put to death.

In 1972, when the Supreme Court threw out the existing statutes on capital punishment, the black mobilization had reached its most radical point. The cities had been or were being rocked by rebellions. The prisons were a hot- bed of revolt. The Attica rebellion had startled the state apparatus in 1971. Even if it was put down in bloody fashion, reverberations of Attica were continuing to spread throughout the prisons. In that situation, the American state passed a number of laws and issued a number of court rulings, which often promised more than in reality they delivered. The ambiguous 1972 ruling was one of those edicts which served to delay the issue when the movement was at its hottest point.

The current movement to reestablish and extend capital punishment simply reflects the change in the social situation.

For a Society without the Death Penalty and without Crime

The working class movement, in the periods when it was most militant, has always taken its stand against the death penalty. First of all, because the death penalty, and the threat of using it, has long been employed by the state against social movements. But also because it is the working class which suffers most at the hands of the state.

The leaders of this capitalist society have more blood on their hands, they are responsible for more monstrous violence than the criminals could ever begin to imagine. They carry out massacres of other people in wars to impose their domination; their bombs annihilate hundreds of thousands of human beings. Here at home, the exploitation of labor by the bosses translates into innumerable deaths by "accident," or those caused indirectly by the pressures of unemployment and homelessness.

The justice these people hand down is class justice, the justice of their class against the laboring people. The answers they give to the problem of crime, that is, prisons, courts, cops and execution, are the answers of their class.

Crime is a social problem. In this capitalist society in which we live, the relations between individuals are not free and equal; they are sanctioned by laws defending capitalist property. Wealth confers rights on those who possess it, above all the right to exploit the labor of other people. Such a society demonstrates contempt for human life in an untold number of ways—including by the actions of the state apparatus.

We socialist revolutionaries carry on a fight against this society, against all the barbaric elements which imbue it, including against the death penalty. It is why we fight for socialism, that is, for another society. In a society without classes, where the exploitation of one human being by another will have disappeared, not only will crimes motivated by money disappear, so will social violence.