by Haider Rizvi
(IPS) NEW YORK --
George Ryan, the Republican governor of Illinois, told 156 inmates last January that they would no longer face execution, opponents of the death penalty in the United States hoped it might encourage the Democratic Party to take a firm stand on the issue in the presidential race.
But to their dismay, with the campaign in full swing for the November election, few of the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination seem willing to vigorously oppose the ultimate penalty. Only Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley have taken that stand.
The Republican Party's opposition to the abolition of capital punishment is well known.
Though skeptical about the workings of the death penalty system, Democrat front-runner Howard Dean says he is in favor of capital punishment. However, in a bid to attract liberal voters, he says he wants the penalty only for extreme and heinous crimes "such as terrorism or the killing of police officers or young children."
John Kerry, Wesley Clark and John Edwards, three other leading candidates, have expressed similar views during their campaigns, while Joseph Lieberman and Dick Gephardt are staunch supporters of capital punishment.
"This is sad," says Robert Deans, of the Death Penalty Information Center, about the stance of most Democratic candidates. "They don't want to be seen as being soft on crime," he added in an interview.
"We are disappointed," adds Kathleen Jones of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, an umbrella organization representing a number of civil rights groups.
Jones also thinks the Democrats' reluctance to take a firm stand is caused by fear of being seen as soft on criminals. This is reflected in recent statements and speeches made by some candidates.
"The liberal, criminal rights-oriented theories I took with me from law school ran smack into the reality of violent crime and street crime in my New Haven neighborhood," said Lieberman, quoted in a recent article in the 'Village Voice' weekly newspaper.
"I knew people who were victims of violent crime and muggings; my house was broken into twice. Fear of crime was constricting freedom and stifling growth, so I began to propose tougher criminal laws, including the death penalty."
The center, a Washington-DC-based non-profit group that tracks death penalty cases in the United States, says there are now 26 people in various U.S. prisons who are scheduled to be executed this year.
Since 1977, when the death penalty was reintroduced, more than 800 men and women have been executed.
Opponents of capital punishment argue that it is applied disproportionately to African Americans and poor people. About 42 percent of inmates on death row are African Americans, although they comprise only 14 percent of the U.S. population.
According to Dennis Kucinich, one of the Democratic hopefuls against the penalty, 75 percent of all people on death row today are non-white.
Death penalty opponents say a vast majority of death row prisoners cannot afford their own lawyers. "I simply cannot support a policy that is so unfairly and unevenly applied," says Kucinich.
When he announced the suspension of death sentences in Illinois, Ryan said he was acting because he was unsure the convictions were just. "The penalty system is arbitrary, capricious ... and therefore immoral," he said.
Another presidential hopeful, Al Sharpton, agrees with Kucinich. In a recent interview, Sharpton said that after viewing one Texas execution, George W. Bush -- then governor -- "stood before the cameras and said, 'this is a great day for justice'. Justice? How do we celebrate killing people?"
Both Kucinich and Sharpton have been written off by pollsters as having no chance of winning the nomination.
Pollsters also continue to project that the U.S. public supports the death penalty. In 1965, only 38 percent of people endorsed capital punishment, but by 1997 that had increased to 72 percent, according to a Harris poll.
Recent surveys suggest more than 60 percent are still for the death penalty.
For years, international human rights groups, including London-based Amnesty International (AI), have been voicing their concern over the use of the death penalty in the U.S, where it has been used against mentally retarded inmates and several under 18 years of age.
The center says that 82 inmates are now on death row for crimes they committed as juveniles.
AI says that as of November last year, more than 70 countries had abolished the death penalty, yet over 1,500 people were executed worldwide. In 2002, 81 percent of all known executions took place in the United States, China and Iran.
"These calculated killings are casting a growing shadow on the United States in an increasingly abolitionist world," said Amnesty in a recent statement.
"The U.S.A.'s political leaders should be promoting abolition in their country too. Their failure turns to hypocrisy when they trumpet the United States as global human rights champion."
January 14, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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