Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Right To Life

By Gerald LeMelle & Lurma Rackley

AUGUST 25, 1997:  On the day the U.S. Supreme Court denied a Virginia man one last chance to prove his innocence (with new DNA testing), the president of the Southern Africa nation of Malawi agreed to commute the sentences of all prisoners awaiting execution. President Bakili Muluzi also pledged not to sign any orders of execution for the rest of his term. With that stroke, like the fabled mouse who scared the elephant, tiny Malawi proved itself stronger than the world's most powerful nation regarding a basic human right -- the right to life.

The following day, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze commuted the death sentences of 54 inmates, giving them 20 years in prison instead. Shevardnadze's action follows his parliament's May decision to replace capital punishment with life imprisonment, an option unavailable when the just-spared prisoners were sentenced.

In a matter of days, two small countries joined most of the developed world in repudiating executions. In fact, more than 100 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. By continuing to execute, the U.S. aligns itself with nations such as China, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, while most of our allies have rejected state-sponsored killing.

With the execution of Joseph O'Dell, Virginia moved into second place, ahead of Florida, in the number of executions since 1976, a total of 41. Missouri plans to execute a man per week in August and more in September; and Texas, which far outdistances other states in executions (130 to date), has scheduled several for August.

Politicians in the U.S. exploit the death penalty for political gain. In our nation's capital, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Mayor Marion Barry, and Councilmember Carol Schwartz race to bring the death penalty to the District's strained criminal-justice system to show they are "tough on crime."

The more strained the system, the more likely mistakes occur in testing evidence, finding competent defenders for the poor, applying justice evenly, and sentencing innocent people to death. Recently, the Death Penalty Information Center reported that over the last 20 years, 69 innocent people were released from death row. Under the current trend of denying stays that would allow people to prove innocence, those 69 men may have died unjustly. The cases include seven in Illinois alone, where law students proved mistaken convictions.

This is where we have come: We will kill people to show that killing people is wrong -- even if it's the wrong person, we're still proving a point, right? Most Americans would say, "Wrong."

Studies consistently show that if given the option of life in prison with no chance of parole over the death penalty, American juries tend to reject the death penalty.

Worldwide, people look to the U.S. as the most powerful protector of human rights. But the U.S. even still sentences children to death. In New Orleans, a 17-year-old sits on death row, following a controversial trial last year with questions of innocence.

America should follow the lead of Malawi and Georgia and most of the developed world. We should abolish the death penalty. (Gerald LeMelle and Lurma Rackley are executives with Amnesty International.)

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