George W. Bush came out of his national convention with a significant lead over Al Gore. One poll put the margin at 17 points. While this is reassuring to his supporters, it is a lead that could quickly evaporate. In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis held a 17 point lead over Republican George Bush and lost the election. One of the wild cards in this particular campaign is the performance of the national media, which has shown the ability to manipulate issues and events for the benefit of the Democrats. It has already tried to turn the death penalty into a big campaign issue against Bush.
While the coverage has not kept the Texas governor from building up a formidable lead in the polls, it has helped reduce the number of Americans who support capital punishment. In 1994, 80 percent supported the death penalty, while today, according to the Gallup organization, the figure has dropped to 66 percent. The relentless anti-death-penalty drumbeat in the media appears to be eroding popular support for the execution of those found guilty of capital murder. The emphasis is on the danger of executing innocent persons, but the foes of the death penalty have yet to cite a case where that has happened in recent history.
Lost in excessive coverage of death penalty cases in Texas, which leads the nation in executions, is the fact that Gov. Bush lacks the power to commute death sentences unilaterally. Unless a majority of the pardons and paroles board recommends it, the Texas governor cannot spare the life of a convicted killer. On June 12, a front-page Washington Post article on how the Gary Graham murder case was testing Bush’s “unflinching faith” in the death penalty put that fact far down in the story on the jump page.
If Bush is going to be held accountable for the executions in Texas, it is a record that some believe should be praised, not criticized. This is not a popular view in the major media, but veteran crime reporter William Tucker argues that because Texas has been responsible for one-third of the nation’s executions, Governor Bush should take some of the credit for the declining national murder rate. Tucker, the author of several books, including Vigilantes: The Backlash Against Crime in America, claims that if the pace of executions were stepped up, more lives could be saved. Tucker’s analysis of the trends in murder rates, using Justice Department figures, suggests that increasing the number of executions for murder is associated with a decline in the number of murders per 100,000 of population.
Fewer Executions, More Murders
Tucker says that with executions falling to very low levels in the 1960s and capital punishment being declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, the murder rate trended upward, reaching a new peak in 1979. The Supreme Court reversed its position on the death penalty in 1976, and the murder rate dropped significantly through 1985 when there were 25 executions. That was only a quarter of the 1951 total, when the population was 35 percent smaller and there were only a tenth as many homicides.
America’s bark was worse than its bite, and the decline in the homicide rate was reversed. It returned to the levels prevailing before the Supreme Court decided that hanging murderers was not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they barred cruel and unusual punishment. Tucker writes, “What you see is that, as soon as we stop executing people, murders skyrocket. The amazing thing is that it’s not just any old kind of murder. It’s a very particular kind of murder called felony murder?murder in the course of a crime.”
The number of executions was stepped up, reaching over a hundred in 1999, about the same number as in 1951. Tucker points out that the murder rate has again declined to around the 1967 level. “Though historically high,” he says, “this is still a lot better than where we’ve been for the last three decades.”
Tucker argues that the evidence is compelling that the death penalty saves lives. “Widely publicized executions proclaim that the justice system ‘means business,'” he says. “The message seems to get through loud and clear to would-be murderers.” He continues, “George Bush and the state of Texas deserve a large portion of the credit for this trend. One-third of the nation’s executions take place in Texas?and the steepest decline in homicides has occurred in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas, which together account for nearly half the nation’s executions.”
Agenda Of The Major Media
Except for the New York Post, which published Tucker’s graph and an article explaining it, the major media have shown no interest in the argument that the death penalty saves lives. Such a slant might leave pro-death penalty governors such as Bush looking good.
Michael Kelly, editor in chief of the National Journal, has accused the press of having an ideological obsession with the issue. He did a Nexis computer data search of major media coverage of the issue. It turned up 505 articles, press releases and mentions on television that discussed George W. Bush in the context of the death penalty. This was in one week alone! When he narrowed the search down to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other major newspapers, he found 12 hits in the Times, four in the Post, and 139 in other major newspapers.
Contrasting the media scrutiny of the death penalty with the public’s historical support for it, Kelly said, “All of this illustrates a curious thing that has happened to presidential elections?the rise of the media as a major force, perhaps the major force, in defining what are and what are not issues.” The problem, he noted, is that the media’s views “are far more liberal” than the general population’s. “The invention of the Bush death penalty issue is typical of the media’s habit of creating issues that skew coverage to (a) advance liberal causes and/or (b) favor the Democrat and disfavor the Republican,” he said. As a group, he observed, “journalists believe in liberalism and in electing Democrats.”
Former Washington Post reporter William Powers, in a July 8 posting on the National Journal web site, agreed, saying, “On issue after issue, the people lean one way, and we lean the other. From school prayer to taxes, from abortion to missile defense, from gay marriage to foreign aid, we have utterly different views from the public we serve.”
The campaign against the death penalty caused George W. Bush to interrupt his campaign in mid-July to grant a death row inmate, Ricky Nolen McGinn, a stay of execution. McGinn, who claimed he was innocent, had been given a death sentence for the rape and murder of his 13-year-old stepdaughter. Her blood was found in his car, on his clothes, and on an ax found in his car. A semen stain was found on her clothes and a pubic hair in her body. DNA tests had already been performed in the case, although they were said to be inconclusive. McGinn wanted time to perform new tests to supposedly prove his innocence. After Bush issued his stay, officials revealed that the new DNA tests failed to exonerate McGinn.
In the Gary Graham case, which received far more national and international publicity, Bush refused to intervene. Paul Duggan of the Washington Post, one of many reporters who tried to use the case to damage Bush, insisted there was only one witness against Graham, and that some other witnesses might clear him. In a column in the Wall Street Journal, two officials of the Texas-based group Justice for All, Dianne Clements and Dudley Sharpe, said the same ploy had been tried back in 1993, when some so-called new witnesses turned out to be Graham’s cousin and a woman who married him in jail. The new witnesses who surfaced this time around had testified at the time of Graham’s 1981 murder that they didn’t see it and couldn’t identify anyone.
A much-publicized Columbia University report claiming the capital punishment system suffers from high reversal of error rates was ripped apart by Paul G. Cassell in the Wall Street Journal. Cassell noted that the media failed to emphasize that the report found no case of an innocent person being put to death. In some of these cases of so-called errors, the death penalty was actually carried out and the conviction reaffirmed. Some other “errors” were the result of anti-death penalty rulings by liberal judges.
The New York Times coverage of the Columbia report was so bad that the Nashville Tennessean took the Times to task, saying it had misrepresented the actual situation in that state. The Times had claimed that Tennessee had a 100 percent reversal rate. There was only one such case, and it had been reversed by an anti-death penalty judge.
The report found that only five percent of the 5,760 death sentences imposed from 1973-1995 were carried out. This is one of the great weaknesses of the death penalty. It suggests that the jurors are wrong 95 percent of the time. If that were true, it would be a powerful argument for dropping the jury system and leaving decisions of guilt and innocence up to judges.
Tennessee is an excellent example of this. Tennessee reinstated capital punishment in 1977 but 23 years later only one execution has been carried out. There are 96 currently pending death sentences in the state. When auto mechanic Robert Glen Coe was executed on April 19 of this year, 19 years had elapsed since his conviction. He had abducted, raped and brutally killed an 8-year-old girl, Cary Ann Medlin, in 1979. An article in the Tennessean described the crime and his confession:
“After raping and sodomizing the child, Coe said, he ‘caught her around the neck and jerked her out of the car.’ Coe tried to choke her, wrapping his fingers around her throat so tightly they left bruises. Cary Ann ‘turned blue in the face and wouldn’t die.’ ‘I told her to shut her eyes and I took out my pocket knife,’ Coe wrote in his confession. He grabbed her hair with one hand and stabbed her in the throat with the other. So the auto mechanic, who had a few years earlier stabbed and tried to rape a woman in Florida, watched as blood squirted from her throat.”
Three days after the murder, Coe traded in his car for another one and drove to a bus station, where he waited for transportation out of state. He had dyed his blond hair jet black with shoe polish, which was dripping down his forehead and neck when he was arrested. Despite all of this evidence and a confession, he thwarted justice for 19 years. He later recanted his confession, claiming he was innocent. He also pleaded insanity. These were all ploys to buy time.
The length of time it takes to carry out the death penalty has to detract from its deterrent effect. The average wait on death row is now more than 10 years even in cases in which the guilt has been firmly established. Tyrone Gilliam, executed by chemical injection in the state of Maryland this year, was convicted in 1988?12 years ago?of the shotgun slaying of a 21-year-old Baltimore hardware store accountant. He and his criminal associates robbed her of $3 and forced her to drive to a secluded area, where he shot her in the head with a shotgun. He confessed twice to pulling the trigger and his confessions were corroborated by two co-defendants. The case was reviewed and upheld 16 times by state and federal appellate courts.
The Clinton-Gore Record
While trying to make the death penalty into a campaign issue, the media have permitted Clinton and Gore to act like supporters of capital punishment while questioning how it is being carried out in Texas. This has enabled them to get some partisan political mileage out of the controversy. In 1992, Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to return to Arkansas for the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black death-row inmate said to have brain damage. At the time, Clinton was selling himself as a “new Democrat” who believed in capital punishment.
But once he became president and had the power to influence the pace of executions on the federal level, Clinton changed. Congress reinstated the federal death penalty in 1988, and Attorney General Janet Reno can authorize prosecutors to seek the death penalty in federal cases. But a study last year found that she had allowed federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty in less than 30 percent of the cases in which it could have been applied.
The study by Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, was published by the Fordham Urban Law Journal. It found that Reno reviewed 397 cases from 1993 to 1998, authorized 116 for death penalty prosecution and turned down 281. By contrast, her Republican predecessors, Richard Thornburgh and William Barr, sought death in 19 of 21 eligible cases from 1990 to 1992. The greater number of cases eligible for the death penalty under Reno reflects changes in the law in 1994 and 2000.
While the Clinton-Gore administration continues to claim it supports the death penalty, it has tried to put judges on the bench who oppose it. For example, Clinton tried to get the Senate to approve Ronnie White as a federal judge. White, a member of the Missouri Supreme Court, had voted to spare the life of a multiple murderer who had stalked and slaughtered a sheriff, two deputies, and a sheriff’s wife. When the U.S. Senate rejected his nomination, the media echoed Clinton’s dubious claims that the decision amounted to racism because the judge was black. Clinton was offended that the Senate had taken the time to examine White’s real record.
Clinton recently stayed the execution of Juan Raul Garza, a convicted drug kingpin said to be responsible for eight murders. Scheduled to be the first federal inmate to be executed in 37 years, he is one of 21 felons awaiting federal execution. Now he won’t be executed until after the election, if then. The execution was halted on the pretext that the Justice Department needed an opportunity to develop clemency guidelines so that Garza could have a chance to ask for clemency.
Senator Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the delay “senseless,” noting that Garza had never indicated a desire for clemency. In a letter to Reno, he asked why the department had not formulated such guidelines during the seven years Reno has been Attorney General. Clearly, the delay was a calculated political move. The execution would have taken place just days before the Democratic convention at a time when the capital punishment issue was still considered a potent weapon against Bush.
Just days after the Republican convention, the New York Times on August 7 ran a story about a rapist/murderer on death row in Texas scheduled for execution on August 9. This time, the excuse the Times offered for delaying the execution was said to be the killer’s mental state. The killer, Oliver Cruz, who had a history of violence and had stabbed his victim 20 times, was said to be mentally impaired. Implying that Gov. Bush was callous toward the handicapped, the Times said, “One of George W. Bush’s first acts as governor, in January 1995, was to reject a request for clemency for Marion Marquez, who suffered from severe brain damage and who had an IQ of 60 and the skills of a 7-year-old. Marquez was executed on the evening of Bush’s inauguration.”
Although the media’s obsession with this issue has not yet had any discernible impact on George W. Bush’s standing in the polls, the potential political impact has not been lost on those opposed to capital punishment. Actor Mike Farrell, an official of Death Penalty Focus, detects a “seismic shift in death penalty politics.” Wayne F. Smith, executive director of the Justice Project, which calls for reform of the death penalty, says that declining support for capital punishment shows that the issue is turning their way.
The Hollywood left, a major source of financial support for the Democratic Party, has stepped up its exploitation of the issue. Last year alone there were three major motion pictures starring prominent actors that dealt with the theme. They are:
The Green Mile (1999). Starring Tom Hanks: About the lives of prison guards on death row leading up to the execution of a wrongly accused man.
The Hurricane (1999). Starring Denzel Washington. About a boxer allegedly wrongly imprisoned for murder.
True Crime (1999). Starring Clint Eastwood. About a journalist investigating the case of an innocent man on death row.
It had been four years since Hollywood had last released a movie on this theme. That was, “Dead Man Walking,” (1995). Starring Sean Penn, it was about a nun who tries to help a death row inmate avoid execution for murder.
On television, the popular NBC program “West Wing” aired an episode earlier this year about a liberal president (played by Martin Sheen) who asks forgiveness from a priest for not stopping a federal execution.
The Murder Capital
In real life, as President Clinton was stopping the execution of a drug kingpin, the rising murder rate got the attention of the Washington Post. In an August 5 editorial, the Post complained that, “Nine men have been shot to death in the past week. About 153 people have been murdered thus far this year?vs. 144 at this point last year.” The paper called for “leadership” from city officials and asked the D.C. Council to pass legislation requiring at least 60 percent of the police department’s officers be assigned to the streets. Noting that police chief Ramsey had failed in his promise to reduce crime, and that Mayor Anthony Williams has been negligent, the Post said that “A worried city?with any hope to be joined at some point by the mayor?wants to know why.”
One possible answer is the failure to use every weapon in the arsenal, including the death penalty. D.C. has no capital punishment statute. The residents voted it down in 1992.
Reno, of course, can act independently, and federal authorities recently announced they would seek the death penalty against Tommy Edelin, the alleged ringleader of a violent D.C. drug gang accused of ordering the killings of 14 people. Ignoring D.C. law, under which the maximum sentence is life without parole, federal authorities said they are acting under a federal statute. This will be the first capital case to be tried in the District in 30 years. In a previous case where Reno had sought the death penalty the accused, the killer of three people at a Starbucks coffee shop, escaped with a life sentence by pleading guilty. Janet Reno accepted the deal.
The death penalty, of course, is meaningless unless there are juries that vote to apply it. Just outside of Washington, D.C., a convicted killer whose guilt was not in doubt escaped the death penalty because some jurors thought he had a bad childhood. The killer, Willis Mark Haynes, had kidnaped and murdered three young women in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 2000.
Because the killings took place on federal land, it became a federal case and prosecutors sought the death penalty. Even though Haynes showed absolutely no remorse for his crimes, the jury wouldn’t accept capital punishment. Several jurors decided that the extensive social and legal services provided to the Haynes family when he was a child had been inadequate. This gross miscarriage of justice did not outrage the liberal editorial writers at the Post.
O.J. And “Hurricane”
The campaign against capital punishment should not be confused with a concern for justice. The media just seem to have a soft spot for killers. The movie, “Hurricane,” was based on the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a black boxer who was twice convicted of shooting up a New Jersey bar at 2:30 a.m. in 1966, with a shotgun and handgun, killing three whites. Today this might be prosecuted as a “hate” crime. Carter and his sparring partner were caught driving a rental car that matched the description of the get-away car given by an eyewitness. A shotgun shell and a bullet were found in the car. Carter, a street tough who had served four years in prison for muggings, was portrayed as a hero in the movie. The detective who investigated his case was demonized. The support of celebrities such as Mohammed Ali and a bleeding-heart judge, Lee Sarokin, helped free him from prison after 19 years.
O.J. Simpson, who was found legally liable for the brutal slashing murders of his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, was recently interviewed by Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show and on the Fox News Channel. He was found not guilty in a criminal court by a largely black jury. His black lawyer, Johnnie Cochran suggested Simpson had been framed by racist police.
Simpson’s recent TV appearances hyped his involvement in an Internet company that allowed people to question him for a fee. Simpson claimed that the money would go to charities and that he wouldn’t make any money from the venture. On the Today show Katie Couric revealed that one of the charities, a camp for children with cancer, didn’t want Simpson’s tainted money.
On the Fox program, Simpson made headlines by blaming his ex-wife for her own murder. He said she had been hanging out with the wrong people. Some Fox news personalities openly expressed disapproval of Fox giving Simpson a platform to spout such nonsense. Barbara Walters canceled Simpson’s appearance on her daytime talk-show on ABC, “The View.” But as the years pass and a generation that doesn’t remember those horrible murders comes on the scene, Simpson, like Rubin Carter, may get the folk hero treatment from Hollywood.
What You Can Do
Send the enclosed cards or your own cards or letters to James E. Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Cong. John J. Duncan, Jr., Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, and to an editor of your choice.