FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Plot Sickens: the Death Penalty and American Politics

Photo by San Francisco Foghorn | CC BY 2.0

What is it about Arkansas that so often makes the state the perfect measure for the distemper of the times? Twenty-five years ago, Bill Clinton interrupted his presidential campaign by rushing home to supervise the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a brain-damaged black man who had shot himself in the head after killing a police officer.  The gunshot obliterated Rector’s frontal lobe, leaving him severely disabled. For his last meal, Rector ordered a steak, cherry Kool-Aid and a slice of pecan pie. Rector wrapped the pie in a napkin, telling the prison guards he was “saving it for later.” Bill Clinton spent the evening of Rector’s execution dining with the actress Mary Steenburgen.

The killing of Rector was a political execution, meant to symbolize the death of the old liberalism that obsessed over the rights of prisoners and the morality of capital punishment. Since that grim spectacle, the Democrats have never again made the death penalty a political issue, except to help engineer its expanded application, as Clinton and Gore did by pushing through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1994, which gutted habeas corpus in federal appeals courts and allowed for the death penalty to be imposed in cases that didn’t involve homicides.

Supervising a few well-timed executions has become a way to bankroll political capital in American politics. George W. Bush tempered his brand as a “compassionate conservative” by executing 157 prisoners, more than any governor in modern history. At one point, Bush was treating his Texas constituents to an execution every two weeks with the pace accelerating as his presidential ambitions mounted. Bush seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in denying clemency requests, especially in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, whose desperate last-minute pleas for mercy he publicly mocked.

Bush and Clinton had both realized that by the 1990s the American public, at least the voting public, desired politicians who aren’t shy about spilling blood. Questions of guilt or innocence were beside the point. In fact, the ability to kill the innocent came to be viewed as a prerequisite for being a firm and unflinching ruler. A real leader kills without regret and never looks back. Collateral damage just comes with the territory.  In late-Capitalist America, we have witnessed a rabid enthusiasm for political figures who wield power without pity. Executions now rank high on the syllabus of power politics.

No one symbolized this extreme moral frigidity more acutely than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who infamously opined in a 1993 death penalty case called Herrera vs. Collins that “mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached.” Scalia may be dead, but the menacing specter of his lethal legal casuistry continues to haunt the federal judiciary.

This spring Arkansas strode forth once again to reveal morbid new innovations in the cult of barbarism. In a race to clear its death row before the state’s supply of Midazolam, a controversial sedative used in executions by chemical injection, expired at the end of April, Governor Asa Hutchinson scheduled eight executions in a span of ten days. It’s symbolic of the moral declension of American liberalism that international drug companies raised more objections to the Arkansas execution derby than the feckless leaders of the Democratic Party, who largely remained mute as this constitutional and ethical travesty unfolded.

Hutchinson, a self-proclaimed born-again Christian who attended Bob Jones University, pursued his slate of executions with an almost Messianic zeal, prompting Sister Helen Prejean to pronounce that “the Bible Belt is now the Execution Belt.” True enough. But the South is also the Destitution Belt and capital punishment is inextricably enmeshed with an economic system whose chief domestic product is poverty. As Peter Linebaugh convincingly demonstrated in his seminal work on the death penalty in England during the 18th Century, The London Hanged, executions function as a kind of economic policy imposed against the capitalism’s losers and outcasts.

In the end, Arkansas only succeeded in killing four of the condemned, two of them in a grotesque back-to-back execution that the press dubbed a “double-header.” The first to be put to death was a black man named Ledell Lee, who, like Rickey Ray Rector, suffered from incapacitating mental disabilities. Unlike Rector, however, Lee may well have been innocent of the 1993 murder of his neighbor, Debra Reese. Lee’s trial was a mockery of justice. The judge in the case was secretly having an affair with the assistant prosecutor, whom he later married. But Lee’s lawyer was an alcoholic and his cross-examinations and summation at trial was bumbling and incoherent. Subsequent appeals to perform DNA testing of blood and hair samples at the crime scene were denied as being “tardy.” Innocence had ceased to be a legitimate defense.

Neil Gorsuch was skiing in Aspen when he got the call that his idol Scalia had died. He says he started crying on the slopes at the news. By the time he assumed his seat on the bench of the Supreme Court, Gorsuch’s moral arteries had fully hardened. In his very first case, Gorsuch cast the deciding vote to execute Ledell Lee, proving that, like his gnomish mentor, he too is willing to kill with an unhesitating stroke of the pen.

***

The Best Place to Donate for Victims of Hurricane Harvey

Texas Environmental Justice Advocates

 

Galveston Flood by Tom Rush

(Thanks to Dave Marsh for alerting me to the Tom Rush version of “Galveston Flood.” Drop me a line if you’ve heard other versions or other neglected Gulf flood songs.)

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Far From Over by Vijay Iyer Sextet

Kind of Spain by Wolfgang Haffner

Forever Young by Reggie Young

Down at the Liquor Store by Steve Azar & the Kings Men

Witchy Feelin’ by Savoy Brown

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Priestdaddy: a Memoir by Patricia Lockwood

Letters to His Neighbor by Marcel Proust

 

Where the World is Run

Hilary Mantel: “Let’s say I will rip your life apart. Me and my banker friends.” How can he explain that to him? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from the castle walls, but from counting houses, not be the call of the bugle, but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.” — Wolf Hall.

 

More articles by:

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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