Above the Law

Does G.W. Bush feel he is above the law? That might explain why he refuses to comment on his own "youthful indiscretions" with cocaine -- which he does not deny occurred in his mid-20s. Somehow it makes sense to him that his crimes should be ignored while the crimes of indigent youths are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

With some regularity during his governorship G.W. Bush explained that "as far as [he's] concerned, an innocent man has never been put to death while he has been in office." He steadfastly refuses to explain why his state is so much more trustworthy than others like Illinois, which has recently abolished -- again -- the death penalty due to numerous erroneous decisions that have come to light with the use of DNA evidence.

Race and the death penalty

"Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die."

Justice Blackmun, US Supreme Court, 1994

The history of the death penalty in the USA shows that it has been applied in a racist manner and that any criminal justice system can be vulnerable to personal or social prejudice. One of the 254 counties in Texas accounts for almost one-third of the state's death row; 132 of the state's 437 condemned prisoners were sentenced in Harris County (Jan. 1998). The race of the murder victim appears to be a major factor in determining who is sentenced to death. Blacks and whites in the USA are the victims of murder in almost equal numbers, yet 82 per cent of prisoners executed since 1977 were convicted of the murder of a white person. Nationwide, blacks are disproportionately represented on death row at both state and federal level. Blacks make up just 12 per cent of the country's population, but 42 per cent of the nation's condemned prisoners. In early 1998, of the 26 people under federal sentence of death (military and civilian), only five prisoners were white. The overwhelming majority of district attorneys and other officials who make the decision as to whether to seek the death penalty are white. In 1998, of the 1,838 such officials in states with the death penalty, 22 were black, and 22 were Latino. The remainder were white.

Executing juvenile offenders

"Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age."

Article 6(5), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

On June 23, 2000, Gary Graham was put to death by lethal injection, despite a number of disturbing concerns about the legitimacy of his trial. The lawyer for the accused did not conduct a pre-trial investigation. Witnesses who did not believe Graham was the murderer were not called to testify, and the one eyewitness who identified Graham did so from a photo lineup in which Graham's picture was the only one that resembled the actual killer. Graham was a juvenile when he was charged.

On 22 April 1998, Joseph John Cannon was led to the lethal injection chamber in Texas. The first attempt to kill him failed when the needle "blew out of his arm" as the lethal solution began to flow. Observers were led away while the needle was reinserted. Joseph John Cannon was 17 years old when he killed Anne Walsh, the crime for which he was sentenced to death. His life up to that point had been one of brutality and abuse. Despite being diagnosed as brain-damaged and schizophrenic, he received no treatment for his mental disorders. His childhood was so deprived that on death row he fared much better, learning to read and write. His execution was a clear violation of international law which prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders.

On 18 May 1998, Texas again ignored international law when it executed Robert Anthony Carter for a crime he committed when he was 17. He too had been severely abused as a child, and had suffered brain damage, facts not made known to the jury which sentenced him to die. In May 1998, more than 25 other people were on death row in Texas for crimes they committed when under the age of 18. Elsewhere in the USA, more than 40 other such prisoners were under sentence of death.


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