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.
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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.)
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
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.