by Michael A. Kroll
(PNS) -- Whether Kevin Cooper is ultimately put to death in San Quentin State Prison or not, Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's new Governor, has missed an historic and unique opportunity to mount the bully pulpit to enlighten and lead.
Kevin Cooper's case, like so many, illustrates the unreliability of jury verdicts for death: sloppy police work, inconsistent statements by witnesses, evidence destroyed or never presented to the jury, and lingering doubts about his guilt. There are simply too many places for human error or malice to intervene and taint the process of taking a human life. Because of these predictable errors of a fallible system, more than 100 people who once were counting down the days and hours on death rows across the country have been freed as wrongly convicted. Is it possible that Kevin Cooper is among them? With an error rate that high, how can we trust that he is not?
Besides the moral questions that seem only to be asked in church, the governor could have talked practicality, nuts and bolts economics. The death penalty is hugely expensive. In this time of fiscal crisis, the Governor might have used the context of a clemency hearing to examine what it has cost the people of the state to bring this one man to this day, solely for the purpose of executing him.
A study done in Illinois -- where the rate of error so offended another pro-death penalty, Catholic, Republican governor, George Ryan, that he first declared a moratorium on its use, then cleared death row through clemency and commutation as he left office -- found that it costs about a million dollars a year for each person sentenced to death. There are more than 600 condemned prisoners in California, the largest death row in the nation. What would a moratorium on executions, starting with Kevin Cooper, save the state in resources that could strengthen local police and fire departments, schools and parks, libraries, services for the disabled? Why not raise the question?
Schwarzenegger could have pointed to his European birth, and opened a discussion about why we, alone among western nations, allow the state the ultimate power of life and death. His native Austria, in fact, was the first country to urge the United Nations, through the Commission on Human Rights, to take up the issue of the death penalty as a human rights violation. That was in 1968. Is the death penalty a violation of basic human dignity, as the South African Supreme Court has declared? Isn't the discussion worth having?
As a religious Catholic, Gov. Schwarzenegger might have publicly acknowledged that Pope John Paul II declared in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life) that, as a practical matter, executions cannot be justified in modern times. That was in 1995. What are the teachings of the great religions of the world on this subject? That, too, would be a worthy question to pursue.
This governor could have reached across old party lines through his wife's membership in the Kennedy clan to question why both assassinated Kennedys, John and Bobby, opposed the death penalty, as their surviving brother Ted still does, and why that opposition may have attenuated in Maria's generation. Our governor might have raised this apparent anomaly in the course of a deeper discussion about a life-and-death matter.
One could argue that only a Republican governor could take a principled stand on the death penalty, the Democrats being too fearful of being branded soft on crime. But this particular governor's opportunity went far beyond the "only Nixon could go to China" model. Among sitting governors, Schwarzenegger is unique. He is bigger than life, a huge movie star whose enormous popularity has nothing to do with politics.
California's governor had the unique opportunity to speak and act on principle regarding the execution of Kevin Cooper. Because of who he is, he would have risked little by doing so. Instead, without even the benefit of a hearing, public or private, he denied clemency in two summary sentences, concluding about the man whose life we are about to snuff out: "He is not a case for clemency."
The governor not only refused to spare a human life, he also chose not to expend any of his immense political capital to raise questions and open an overdue discussion about the morality and efficacy of the death penalty, a discussion that other politicians have shown they have no stomach for. In so doing, he has shown himself to be just another politician.
February 2, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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