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:
September 20, 2018
Michael Hudson
Wasting the Lehman Crisis: What Was Not Saved Was the Economy
John Pilger
Hold the Front Page, the Reporters are Missing
Kenn Orphan
The Power of the Anthropocene
Paul Cox – Stan Cox
Puerto Rico’s Unnatural Disaster Rolls on Into Year Two
Rajan Menon
Yemen’s Descent Into Hell: a Saudi-American War of Terror
Russell Mokhiber
Nick Brana Says Dems Will Again Deny Sanders Presidential Nomination
Nicholas Levis
Three Lessons of Occupy Wall Street, With a Fair Dose of Memory
Steve Martinot
The Constitutionality of Homeless Encampments
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
The Aftershocks of the Economic Collapse Are Still Being Felt
Jesse Jackson
By Enforcing Climate Change Denial, Trump Puts Us All in Peril
George Wuerthner
Coyote Killing is Counter Productive
Mel Gurtov
On Dealing with China
Dean Baker
How to Reduce Corruption in Medicine: Remove the Money
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail