FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Politics of Death in California

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.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Atwood
Peace or Armageddon: Take Your Pick
Paul Street
No Liberal Rallies Yet for the Children of Yemen
Nick Pemberton
The Bipartisan War on Central and South American Women
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Are You Putin Me On?
Andrew Levine
Sovereignty: What Is It Good For? 
Brian Cloughley
The Trump/NATO Debacle and the Profit Motive
David Rosen
Trump’s Supreme Pick Escalates America’s War on Sex 
Melvin Goodman
Montenegro and the “Manchurian Candidate”
Salvador   Rangel
“These Are Not Our Kids”: The Racial Capitalism of Caging Children at the Border
Matthew Stevenson
Going Home Again to Trump’s America
Louis Proyect
Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and the Dilemmas of the Left
Patrick Cockburn
Iraqi Protests: “Bad Government, Bad Roads, Bad Weather, Bad People”
Robert Fantina
Has It Really Come to This?
Russell Mokhiber
Kristin Lawless on the Corporate Takeover of the American Kitchen
John W. Whitehead
It’s All Fake: Reality TV That Masquerades as American Politics
Patrick Bobilin
In Your Period Piece, I Would be the Help
Ramzy Baroud
The Massacre of Inn Din: How Rohingya Are Lynched and Held Responsible
Robert Fisk
How Weapons Made in Bosnia Fueled Syria’s Bleak Civil War
Gary Leupp
Trump’s Helsinki Press Conference and Public Disgrace
Josh Hoxie
Our Missing $10 Trillion
Martha Rosenberg
Pharma “Screening” Is a Ploy to Seize More Patients
Basav Sen
Brett Kavanaugh Would be a Disaster for the Climate
David Lau
The Origins of Local AFT 4400: a Profile of Julie Olsen Edwards
Rohullah Naderi
The Elusive Pursuit of Peace by Afghanistan
Binoy Kampmark
Shaking Establishments: The Ocasio-Cortez Effect
John Laforge
18 Protesters Cut Into German Air Base to Protest US Nuclear Weapons Deployment
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and the Swedish Question
Chia-Chia Wang
Local Police Shouldn’t Collaborate With ICE
Paul Lyons
YouTube’s Content ID – A Case Study
Jill Richardson
Soon You Won’t be Able to Use Food Stamps at Farmers’ Markets, But That’s Not the Half of It
Kevin MacKay
Climate Change is Proving Worse Than We Imagined, So Why Aren’t We Confronting its Root Cause?
Thomas Knapp
Elections: More than Half of Americans Believe Fairy Tales are Real
Ralph Nader
Warner Slack—Doctor for the People Forever
Lee Ballinger
Soccer, Baseball and Immigration
Louis Yako
Celebrating the Wounds of Exile with Poetry
Ron Jacobs
Working Class Fiction—Not Just Surplus Value
Perry Hoberman
You Can’t Vote Out Fascism… You Have to Drive It From Power!
Robert Koehler
Guns and Racism, on the Rocks
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Implementation with Integrity and Will to Resolve
Justin Anderson
Elon Musk vs. the Media
Graham Peebles
A Time of Hope for Ethiopia
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Homophobia in the Service of Anti-Trumpism is Still Homophobic (Even When it’s the New York Times)
Martin Billheimer
Childhood, Ferocious Sleep
David Yearsley
The Glories of the Grammophone
Tom Clark
Gameplanning the Patriotic Retributive Attack on Montenegro
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail