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'EXECUTING CHILDREN', AND OTHER DEATH-PENALTY MYTHS

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

June 2, 2002

(First of two parts)

There were tears and sighs aplenty when Napoleon Beazley was put to death last week, eight years after he pumped two .45-caliber bullets into the head of a defenseless 63-year-old, rifled the dead man's pockets to get his keys, and then stole his car for a one-block joyride. But the tears and sighs weren't for Beazley's victim, John Luttig; or for Luttig's widow, who watched her husband die and was nearly killed herself; or for their children and grandchildren, whose lives sustained a wound that night that will never fully heal.

The tears and sighs were for Beazley. And why? Because at the time he committed what even he later called a "heinous" and "senseless" murder, his 18th birthday was still three months off. That was enough to send the anti-death penalty spin machine into overdrive.

"I am astounded," wrote Bishop Desmond Tutu, "that Texas [and other states] take children from their families and execute them."

"Texas must recognize," thundered Sue Gunawardena-Vaught of Amnesty International, "that the brutal practice of executing children is in complete and utter defiance of international law."

"Of those nations executing children," an aghast Jeannine Scott wrote in The New Abolitionist, "the United States is far in the lead."

It's hard to say which is more offensive -- the pretense that giving a lethal injection to a 25-year-old convicted murderer amounts to "executing children," or the spectacle of people who never shed a tear for the innocent John Luttig weeping so noisily for his killer.

In any case, the age issue is a red herring. No state allows the death sentence for anyone younger than 16, and no one younger than 23 has been executed in modern times. Anti-execution activists seized on Beazley's age for the same reason they seized on Karla Faye Tucker's death row conversion to Christianity and Ricky McGinn's last-minute plea for DNA testing: They'll seize on any excuse to keep a murderer alive, no matter how lame the excuse or how obvious the murderer's guilt.

That is their right, of course -- in a way, it is even part of the super-due process the US criminal justice system affords capital defendants -- but it would be nice if they sometimes acknowledged the truth: They aren't opposed to unjust or tainted executions, they are opposed to all executions, period. The Beazley brouhaha was simply one more skirmish in their ongoing (and very well-funded) campaign to wipe out capital punishment.

So is their call for a death-penalty moratorium.

Opponents of capital punishment loudly insist that death sentences are meted out unfairly and incompetently, that the criminal justice system is broken, and -- worst of all -- that scores of innocent defendants are being sent to death row. These are grotesque exaggerations, based mostly on a handful of anecdotes (didja hear the one about the lawyer who fell asleep?) or highly tortured statistics, like the phony claim that there is a 68 percent error rate in capital cases.

The truth is that capital punishment in America is the most accurate and carefully administered criminal sanction in the world, and the public has good reason to support it. The latest Gallup poll shows that 72 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for murderers, while only 25 percent oppose it. Indeed, nearly half of the public (47 percent) says that the death penalty isn't imposed often enough, more than double the 22 percent who think it is imposed too often.

Hence the call for a moratorium. Americans are being urged not to abolish executions but merely to suspend them long enough to identify and fix any problems. "Whether you support or oppose capital punishment," goes the ACLU's pitch, "we need a moratorium on executions to give us time to figure out why the system is not working."

It's a clever appeal, geared to Americans' sense of fair play, and there are signs it is having an impact. Illinois and Maryland have adopted moratoriums. The idea is under consideration in other states. Writing in The New Republic, Peter Beinart suggests that endorsing a national death-penalty moratorium could be a winning issue for a Democratic presidential candidate. With a largely anti-death penalty media cheering in the background, perhaps it could.

To be sure, some moratorium proponents are in fact death penalty supporters who sincerely believe that there are correctable problems with the way it is currently administered. That was the thinking behind the moratorium in Illinois, a state where judges and policemen have been convicted of corruption and where a number of capital defendants were wrongly convicted.

But most of those calling for a national moratorium see it as a prelude to ending executions for good. As usual, they are not being straightforward about their motives -- or about what we could expect if they get their way.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
His E-mail address is -
jacoby@globe.com
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