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

Death Penalty USA:
A Throwback to Medieval Barbarism

Apr 29, 2002

In mid-April a blue-ribbon commission appointed by Illinois Governor George Ryan recommended what it said were 85 ways to prevent “unwarranted” executions. The Governor then said that he would study the report, as did representatives from the other 39 states that have the death penalty.

This commission was formed after Governor Ryan became the first governor to issue a moratorium on all death penalties in his state. He was facing a growing public outcry over the fact that 13 death row inmates in his state had been found to be not guilty of the crimes that they had convicted of, some within only days of their scheduled execution. These prisoners were not found innocent through the ordinary workings of the criminal justice system. On the contrary, their convictions were upheld at every level of the appeals process. If it had just been up to the courts, the prosecutors and the police, these innocent people would have been executed. Only when private citizens–lawyers working pro bono with law school and journalism classes–took it upon themselves, investigated the cases, and dug up the proof were these innocent people spared death.

Ryan did what every politician does when confronted with this kind of “tricky” problem, he appointed a blue-ribbon commission, that is, he played for time.

This commission, made up of a former U.S. senator, former federal prosecutors, judges, and even a former head of the FBI and CIA, examined all the death penalty cases in Illinois. And what they report is what every reasonable person knows: that time and again, detectives and prosecutors coerced false confessions, suborned false eyewitness testimony and fiddled around with evidence to make the facts appear different than they really were, all with the complete consent and cooperation of the judiciary.

But what conclusion did the commission draw? It only called these practices “flaws” and recommended ways to “fix” them. As if these “flaws” are not crimes, serious crimes being committed at all levels of the entire criminal justice system, starting with the people in charge! Every day this criminal justice system literally crushes and ruins the lives of countless people, including not just all those unjustly thrown into prison, but the lives of their loved ones, entire families, as well. For this judicial system, innocent or guilty, it hardly matters–not so long as the accused come from the laboring classes or the poor.

With the death penalty, this systematic violence is taken to its ultimate level: cold blooded, officially sanctioned murder.

Of course, the politicians don’t say that. They say that the death penalty is simply a means to stop crime. But no other industrialized country has the death penalty. All those countries got rid of it a long time ago. Yet they have a much lower crime rate than this country.

The reason for this is simple. What stops crime is not harsher punishment, warehousing millions in prison and throwing away the key, or strapping people to a gurney and running poison through their veins. No, what brings crime down is less poverty, providing economic and social living conditions worthy of human beings. The fact that this country has the biggest gap between rich and poor among the industrial countries is the reason why it has the much higher crime rate. And the fact that this poverty is growing, as corporations and politicians cut jobs and social programs, means that they are creating an even bigger criminal class, guaranteeing that crime will get worse.

This country may be powerful and rich, with the most advanced science and the highest technology. But those resources are not used for the betterment of the living conditions of the population. On the contrary, the ruling class uses it against the population, for the ruling class’s own enrichment.

The death penalty, which came from the darkest of the dark ages, is just one more form of power and violence that the ruling class uses against the population. George W. Bush ran for president on his record as the governor who executed more prisoners than any other governor in the country. Instead of that being denounced as a record of shame, it was presented as being exemplary! He brags about it, just as his brother Jeb in charge of Florida brags about it! Hitler once bragged of sending people to death camps, too. The scale might have been different. But not the sentiment.

The very same ruling class–which commits economic and social violence against the working class, depriving it of work, cutting wages–is the very same ruling class that commits murder with the death penalty.

The “blue ribbon” Illinois panel had nothing to say about that. Not a word! Not a peep!