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The Politics of Death in California

by PHIL GASPER

On June 29, 1967, then-California Governor Ronald Reagan commuted the death sentence of Calvin Thomas to life in prison, when medical tests conducted after Thomas’s trial revealed significant brain damage.

Last week, Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to stop the execution of Donald Beardslee, another brain-damaged death-row inmate.

What distinguished these two cases?

Apart from the political climate, not much.

During the original trial, the prosecutor told the jury that Beardslee was “not suffering from any mental disorder.”

Faced with the evidence that this was not true, Schwarzenegger claimed that, nevertheless, Beardslee knew what he was doing when he participated in a brutal double murder in 1981.

But Dr. Ruben Gur, a leading expert on brain damage from the University of Pennsylvania, who examined Beardslee, wrote:

“The profound, likely lifelong damage to the right hemisphere of Mr. Beardslee’s brain made him unable to correctly process and contextualize information.”

Clemency decisions in California have become part of a political game.

Last year, Schwarzenegger would not even postpone the scheduled execution of Kevin Cooper after Jesse Jackson and other anti-death penalty activists publicized new evidence casting doubt on Cooper’s conviction.

Cooper’s life was saved only after the Ninth Circuit unexpectedly intervened at the last moment to allow a new evidentiary hearing.

In Beardslee’s case, Schwarzenegger dismissed not only his brain damage, but also his exemplary behavior as a prisoner for over 20 years, which led former San Quentin Warden Daniel Vasquez to write an unprecedented letter on Beardslee’s behalf.

To make matters worse, Beardslee was executed just as the state senate has set up a new commission to study flaws in the death penalty process.

If evidence of innocence, brain damage and exceptional behavior behind bars, are irrelevant, then clemency is a dead letter.

None of this bodes well for former Crips founder Stanley “Tookie” Williams, likely to be one of the next facing execution, and whose books warning kids away from gangs and crime led me to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The clemency process is now simply one more opportunity for the governor to pose as “tough on crime,” even though there is evidence suggesting that executions may actually increase the murder rate.

Instead of dealing with underlying causes of crime and violence, most politicians continue to advocate failed policies that make the situation worse.

According to philosopher and criminologist Jeffrey Reiman, policies like the death penalty project “the distorted image that crime is primarily the work of the poor.

“The value of this to those in positions of power is that it deflects the discontent and potential hostility of Middle America away from the classes above them and toward the classes below them.”

In the days leading up to Beardslee’s execution, Schwarzenegger proposed sharp cuts in education, health spending and other social programs, policies likely to create more Donald Beardslees in the future.

And at a time when the state faces a huge budget deficit, the Department of Corrections wants to spend at least $220 million expanding San Quentin’s death row, even though the people who are sent there will more likely die of old age than by lethal injection.

This ghastly and costly charade will continue, until more people become outraged at the injustices being committed in their names.

It was the climate created by the civil rights movement and other social justice struggles that made Calvin Thomas’s execution unthinkable in 1967.

In his statement denying clemency, Schwarzenegger claimed that Beardslee could “tell the difference between right and wrong.”

After executing a severely brain damaged man, it is less clear that the governor himself grasps this distinction.

PHIL GASPER is professor of philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, and a member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. NDNU is holding a conference on the death penalty featuring Sister Helen Prejean on March 11 and 12. For details contact pgasper@ndnu.edu.

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