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Last Rights

Human Rights
United States

new internationalist
issue 244 - June 1993

Last rights
The Vatican has endorsed it; Bill Clinton is using it to prove he is ‘tough’.
Is the death penalty making a comeback? Brian Dooley sifts the evidence.

Guess which three countries execute the most juvenile offenders. Iran and Iraq will surprise nobody by their inclusion on this list – but the third guilty party is the US.

Throughout the World Conference on Human Rights, Bill Clinton’s State Department will be putting pressure on selected countries to democratize, liberalize and energize their efforts towards open and free government. But one area of human rights where they will certainly not be able to exert any pressure is the death penalty, since the US is killing its own citizens at an accelerated rate. Last year saw a bumper execution total of 31.

It’s far easier for developing nations to retain or introduce the death penalty if self-proclaimed guardians of human rights like the US still practise it.1 And if developing democracies search for moral justifications beyond the US example, they could follow the lead set by the Vatican at the end of 1992. The Catholic Church’s new Universal Catechism, which took five years of research and 11 separate drafts, declares that the death penalty ‘is permissible’.

Informed commentary suggests that the invisible hand of the US may have been involved at some stage here too. The Catholic Church relies heavily on funding from American Catholics, its largest income base, and may have considered it risky to denounce US law.

The Vatican endorsement is regarded as a serious setback by some anti-death-penalty campaigners. They point out that in countries with a sizable Catholic population, the moral argument against state executions will be severely weakened. Since the pronouncement, pro-death-penalty politicians have come close to reintroducing the punishment in El Salvador, have succeeded in bringing it back to the Philippines and are currently battling to restore it in Peru.

The real battle, though, is to persuade a few key countries to exclude the punishment completely from their statutes in the hope of creating a domino effect. Britain is a vital target. While the death penalty is no longer allowed in the UK for ordinary offences, it is still on the statute books for treason. At the moment the final appeal for prisoners sentenced to death in Mauritius, Belize, Brunei, The Gambia, Jamaica and more than a dozen other countries in the Caribbean, is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (an arcane body of former and current politicians which reports to the Queen) in London. It would be very difficult for this body to recommend that executions be carried out if the British Government had banned it for all offences and denounced it as an absolutely inappropriate sentence.

Similarly, when Prime Minister John Major visited Beijing in August 1991, he raised the cases of dozens of political prisoners with the Chinese authorities but was in no position to seize the moral high ground on state executions – yet more people are executed in China every year than were killed in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. Hard statistics are difficult to find, as official figures are classified state secrets, but it is believed that about 20,000 people are put to death every year – though, surprisingly enough, China is not among those countries which execute juvenile offenders. One-third of all criminal offences in Chinese law carry the death penalty. Defendants are not presumed innocent and many prisoners sentenced to death are publicly displayed at mass sentencing rallies which take place at football grounds before they are executed, with rally tickets available in advance from selected Hong Kong outlets. Condemned prisoners are then put on open lorries, and driven straight from the rally to the execution grounds with placards around their necks which announce their crimes. Then they are shot.

Shooting also remains an option for two states in the US, although most rely on more traditional methods like a lethal injection, a gas chamber or an electric chair. The chances of a condemned prisoner actually being executed in the US depend upon a complicated equation which includes the race and sex of the prisoner and his/her victim, the state s/he is convicted in, and a myriad of other political variables – if it’s an election year, if ‘crime’ is a local issue, if the international community makes a strong representation for clemency, etc.

No case illustrates the complexity of the forces involved in an execution better than that of Ricky Ray Rector of Arkansas.2 In 1981, Rector killed two men, the second a police officer. Immediately after, he shot himself through the left temple.

The bullet blasted away three inches from the front of his brain, and lodged in the right side of his head, just above his ear. Previously disturbed, Rector’s understanding was now reduced to that of a small child. His IQ hovered between 63 and 70. A prison psychologist who examined Rector soon after noted that he ‘seemed unable to grasp the concept of past or future’ and had told several people he had been hospitalized because of a wound to his leg.

When his death sentence was pronounced, Rector’s first reaction was to inquire if he would get a television in his cell (a cell which he believed was swarming with alligators and chickens). Rector had no real grasp of what the sentence meant. His attorney stressed that ‘For Ricky, “I’m going to die”... had about the same meaning as “I’m going to the dentist.”’

Under other circumstances, given a sympathetic governor, Rector’s chances of survival would have been good. He was clearly not the same human being who had shot the two men dead. Unluckily for Rector, however, his governor was running for president and, as the execution date approached, was going through a bad spell.

In January 1991, Bill Clinton was campaigning in the conservative state of New Hampshire. His early momentum had been checked by allegations of an affair with Gennifer Flowers and his chances in the primary were slipping away. Clinton’s fingers had been burnt on the crime issue once before. Back in 1979 he had released a 73-year-old mortally-ill murderer who had killed again before dying. Clinton had lost the following year’s election. After that he reversed his position on the death penalty and won back the governorship.

Sadly for Rector, the execution became a test of Clinton’s nerve. Would he allow the execution of a man with severe brain damage to take place? Clinton left the campaign trail and flew back to Arkansas to ensure that the punishment went ahead as scheduled.

Rector spent his last hours as he had spent the previous ten years – alternately skipping, barking, laughing and howling. He left the dessert of his final meal, believing he could eat it when he returned from the execution chamber.

As he lay in the trolley, waiting for the needle to be inserted into his arm and the lethal injection to take its course, a group of witnesses gathered outside the chamber: orange plastic chairs were provided for them together with sick bags and a nurse in case the execution proved too much for them. The medical crew struggled for an hour to find a vein which could cope with the injection, but Rector’s veins were too thin and kept collapsing. Eventually they were forced to slash his arm to gain access. Finally, 19 minutes after they began pumping the poison into his arm, Rector died.

Aides close to Clinton stress how difficult the decision was for him, and describe how his voice appeared choked during the evening of the execution. A personal appeal from Jesse Jackson was refused. According to Jackson, Clinton said ‘he’d been researching various ways to get around it, but it just couldn’t be done... Said he was praying about it, though.’

The lottery of the process was underlined a year later, when Clinton was sworn in as President. Arkansas had to appoint a temporary governor to replace him, and Jerry Jewell from the state legislature became Acting Governor for a week. During that week four death-penalty cases passed across his desk. All four were saved from execution and Jewell expressed regret that he wasn’t able to spare more. If Rector’s case had come up in January of 1993 instead of 1992, his chances of survival would have been much greater.

US execution dates which arise during the Vienna Conference are likely to be given huge publicity and will provide much of the focus for campaigners against the death penalty worldwide. The US will probably not be sensitive enough to delay the executions until after the Conference: last December, an execution was carried out in Virginia during the state’s official Human Rights Week.
The tide towards worldwide abolition is so far no more than a trickle – on average two countries a year do away with the death penalty – dammed up by the insistence of a few key countries on retaining the punishment. Until those governments breach the logjam, state executions are here to stay.

Brian Dooley works in the press office of Amnesty International British Section.

1 USA: Death Penalty and Juvenile Offenders, Amnesty International 1991.
2 USA: Death Penalty Developments in 1992, Amnesty International.

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