Memorial Day is the day we set aside to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms of life that the Bush Administration is taking away. In that respect, this Memorial Day is most poignant. Can it be that those hundreds of thousands of sacrifices have now been in vain? because one Administration, drunk on power and ruling by fear, will dismantle the Constitution to promote the interests of wealth and privilege?
Never have I thought more about the significance of Memorial Day than on this day. Spending so much time reading and writing about the loss of freedom put this day in a new perspective. Sad as I was upon waking this morning, I even more so as I read about yet another young man (African American, of course) about to be put to death by the machinery of my state, Virginia.
Then it came to me?. Why not add a new category of people to honor on Memorial Day–all people that our local, state, and federal governments have killed? They, too, make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of "freedom." Law enforcement and justice systems tell us that by killing the innocent? and the guilty they are making our communities safer. They are saving us from fear and ridding the state of undesirables (as Bush says he is doing in the war on civil liberties).
At the top of the roll call of honored dead would be the two innocent, hard-working, law-abiding citizens who died at the hands of New York City police officers (NYPD) last week. One, an immigrant from Africa whose specialty was restoring African art, was killed in a ambush when NYPD were looking for people who are pirating CDs (ask yourself why, even if he were doing that, it would merit a shooting). Then there was the woman whose apartment was stormed by SWAT team members looking for criminal activity. Wrong place, wrong person. She died of a heart attack in the melee.
We could add all those, known and unknown, who have been executed by the state for crimes they did not commit. We could add all those who have been executed for crimes they did commit?, for a state that kills its own is a sad, sick government that relishes in the ultimate act of power?–taking life away in the pretext of doing "justice."
Then we could add those whom the state executes who are so mentally ill that their murder by the state rises above the "normal" execution. I am talking about 24-year-old Percey Levar Walton, whom Virginia plans to execute (yes, Virginia, there is an electric chair in the Commonwealth) this coming Wednesday night.
Percey was 18 when he killed three of his neighbors in a senseless violent rampage. His senselessness was born of schizophrenia, that brain disease in which causes its sufferers to be cut-off from reality, and to live in a world of delusions and hallucinations. One wonders what kind of representation Percey had. Why was he convicted, given that his mental illness was unquestioned? But, Virginia is second only to Texas in the number of people it executes, and Virginia is a fraction of the size of Texas. Virginians love their guns, and love to kill. The state death machinery only mirrors its citizens’ sick obsession with taking life.
In order for Percey’s life to be taken Wednesday by shocks of electric current frying his already sick brain, it has to make a minimal showing that he is "competent" to be put to death. Now there is a sick concept for you?: state psychiatrists have to say that he knows he is about to die and that he is doing so to expiate for his sins against the Commonwealth. Psychiatrists have already done their part. They are not partial, mind you. They work for the state. Their jobs depends on telling the warden what he wants to know?–that the man is ok to die. They have already so reported in Percey’s case.
Last year the Supreme court ruled in another Virginia case, Atkins v. Virginia, that the mentally retarded should not be executed. But that logic has not extended to the mentally ill, some of whom, like Percey, are so deranged that they think they are Jesus Christ, Batman, Superman, or, the King of Hearts. Go figure out that atrocity; and, while you are at it, think of the triad of hatred in Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas, all of whom lust for blood and death. They rail against any mention that anyone should not be put to death, including, in Scalia’s case, a belief that "horse thieves" should be hung today because they were in the early days of the country.
So look no further than sickness in the high court to wonder why men like Percey are executed. The bean-counting governor, Mark Warner, is not likely to risk his future political ambitions (though Virginia governors serve only one term, they all aspire to higher office; former governor George Allen is now, sadly, a U.S. senator, and former governor Gilmore was once the head of the Republican National Committee and now has some cushy job in Homeland Security) by speaking out for a man who represents no constituency.
Prosecutors, with blood on their hands, say that mental illness should be no defense to execution because then convicted inmates could "fake" illness to escape dying in the chair or by injection. Like a state psychiatrist could not tell the difference? And if he or she could not, that means that they are not qualified to render a condemned man or woman competent to die, either. Seems like this logic could cut both ways.
Baring some relief from the federal courts, and you can imagine the likelihood of that happening, Percey Levar Walton, age 24, will become another statistic in the state record books. And proof that we have no shame as a society when we would take pride, joy even, as Scalia does in the death penalty, in killing the sick, the deranged, and the demented.
So, on this Memorial Day, let’s remember those who, by reason of birth, nationality, ethnicity, race, age, geography, social status, and bad luck, die at the hands of a government who could, if it would, show compassion and decency. But which won’t, because those traits don’t buy votes. And dead men can’t vote.
ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and writes about psychological and legal issues for CounterPunch and Findlaw. She keeps an eye on the Bush Administration’s shredding of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch, hosted by City Pages. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.