Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Political Tough Talk: Crime And Punishment

The Death Penalty in Texas: 
A 40 Year Retrospection 

Part 4: Dorothy Charles Banks
Special to The Villager
August 2000

Candidate Michael Dukakis 1988
Politicians talk tough about crime and punishment to get elected. Gov. George Bush, a pro-death penalty proponent, doggedly sticks to his belief that all condemned criminals executed in Texas were/are guilty. When George Bush, Sr., ran for president in 1988 he used the  heavily bearded Black face of convict, rapist and murderer Willie Horton to strike fear in the hearts of White Americans. One of his campaign promises was to bring back the death penalty, making sure it was used nationwide. In 1988 only four people were executed in Texas.

During a debate with Bush, Sr., presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was asked what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered. It was a question created to get a presidential candidate's stance on the death penalty as a deterrent. It was a political make or break capital punishment question. Dukakis answered honestly, saying  he had no proof that capital punishment was a deterrent to crime. 

Voters, the media and critics alike said Dukakis appeared "too weak on crime and the death penalty." With his wife being the hypothetical victim, women voters were outraged and incensed that Dukakis did not show outright anger in his response to the question. He lost the presidential election to Bush.

Gov. Clinton and capital punishment

As a first-term governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton appeared too soft on crime and capital punishment. He commuted the death sentences of 44 murderers to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Clinton did not set execution dates for 24 death row inmates. His anti-death penalty stance lost him the bid for re-election in 1980. In 1982 candidate Clinton readjusted his thinking on capital punishment. He told voters that he would not commute as many sentences this time around if they voted for him.

After winning the governor's seat again Clinton kept his word. He set execution dates, commuted only seven capital punishment sentences to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He did not agree to, or grant any requests for clemency. When Clinton ran for president he talked tough about crime and his support for capital punishment.

In the middle of his campaign for president in 1992, Bill Clinton stopped campaigning long enough to return to Arkansas for the execution of 40-year old Ricky Ray Rector, a Black man who shot to death a White policeman. News reports say Rector shot himself in the head rather than be taken alive by police. His self-inflected head wound was severe but not deadly. Doctors saved his life; however, doctors had to perform a lobotomy. Rector recovered. He was executed January 24. Unable to understand that he was about to be put to death, Rector asked prison guards to save his desert, a slice of pecan pie. He intended to eat it later when he returned to his cell.

Bob Dole, a presidential candidate running against Clinton, took a tour of the death chamber in California to impress voters with his stance on the death penalty. He vowed to push for laws that would speed up executions.

National clemency rate falls

From 1961 to 1970 there were 1,115 death sentences handed down in the U. S., 182 commutations, or one commutation for every 6.3 death sentence. From 1979 to 1988 there were 2,535 death sentences handed down and only 63 commutations, or one commutation for every 40.2 death sentence. Only one death sentence was commuted in 1994, and no death row inmates were granted clemency in 1995. These figures demonstrate that  governors are afraid of being labeled soft on crime if they commute death sentences.

Between 1984 and 1998, 33 mentally retarded death row inmates were executed. Their IQ's ranged from borderline to mildly retarded. Some of their IQ's were as low as 62, the highest being 76. With the exception of Girvies Davis from Illinois, and Reginald Powell from Montana, the overwhelming majority of inmates were from southern states; 23 were African Americans. Five were executed in Texas, more than in the other state.

Congress, influenced by citizens favoring capital punishment, brought back the federal death penalty in 1988, which was passed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Legislatures signed it into law a few months later. Fifty new offenses were added to the bill--all of them punishable by death.

SB 326 introduced

Senator Rodney Ellis
In 1999 Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), pro-death penalty, introduced SB 326 to ban the execution of mentally retarded inmates. It passed the Senate by a 23-7 vote. Ellis said in a press release, "As a supporter of the death penalty, I know that prohibiting the death penalty against the mentally retarded is the right thing."

Under SB 326, life without parole would become the maximum penalty for retarded offenders if convicted of a capital crime. The bill died in the House Calendars Committee. A statewide poll showed that 86 percent of Texans supports the death penalty for mentally retarded inmates.

"We do not execute children in Texas. We should not execute those that have the mental capacity of a child," said Ellis. "The ultimate penalty should be reserved for those that can clearly comprehend why they are going to die. It is time for Texas to do the right thing and stop executing the mentally retarded," Ellis concluded.

Johnny Paul Pentry, a White male, raped and killed a 22-year old woman from a prominent family in Livingston, Texas. She identified Pentry as the person who attacked her before she died. Pentry confessed to the stabbing and rape, and signed a confession. Reportedly, he is unable to read or write. Although he had been charged with a prior rape in 1977, he was released on parole August 1979. He committed the rape and murder of the Livingston woman the next month.

Pentry's lawyer appealed the case. It went to the U. S. Supreme Court. A split decision was returned in 1989. The Court said jurors "should have been able to consider Pentry's mental abilities as a mitigating factor when assessing punishment." The Court decided that executing the mentally retarded was not "unconstitutionally cruel."

Thirteen states stopped executing the mentally retarded in 1989 after the Pentry vs Lynaugh decision was handed down by the Supreme Court. Those 13 states are: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Dakota, Tennessee, Washington, and New York. The federal government also passed laws that stops the execution of the mentally retarded.

According to Ellis, "Compassion is not a sign of weakness. You can be tough on crime and show compassion at the same time. Executing the mentally makes Texas look bloodthirsty, not thirsty for justice."

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