Revolution Online, September 26, 2011

The Streamlining of Executions

The whole way Troy Davis was arrested, railroaded in court, put on death row and then legally lynched by the system is very much in line with policy shifts, new laws, and court decisions taken by the ruling class throughout the '80s and '90s—which have been used to imprison millions of more people, including many on death row.

Over the last several decades, this system has cranked up a whole program of mass incarceration, especially of Black and Latino youth, and sought to make the death sentence not only frequent but almost irrevocable. And as part of this, access of convicted prisoners to lawyers and to the courts has been increasingly constrained and curtailed.

Since 1989, more than 250 people in 34 states who were convicted of various felonies have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing (see Since 1973, 138 people awaiting execution have been exonerated by various means (see How many more people have spent decades behind bars for crimes they did not commit? But far from welcoming the cases where a huge injustice was reversed, the system views this as a problem.

A 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stated that even if "a truly persuasive post-trial demonstration of 'actual innocence' would render a defendant’s execution unconstitutional and warrant federal habeas relief," the threshold to trigger such relief "would necessarily be extraordinarily high because of the very disruptive effect that entertaining such claims would have on the need for finality in capital cases and the enormous burden that having to retry cases ... would place on the States." (Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993).  [Emphasis ours.] That is, slowing down the execution process to prevent innocent people from being murdered is considered unacceptable, a "burden."

Then in April 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which greatly narrowed the scope of judicial access for convicted inmates. In the words of a prominent attorney, AEDPA "represent[s] a decision that results are more important than process, that finality is more important than fairness, and that proceeding with executions is more important than determining whether convictions and sentences were obtained fairly and reliably." (Stephen B. Bright, John Randolph Tucker Lecture, Volume 54 of the Washington and Lee Law Review, p. 1 (Winter 1997). [Emphasis ours.]

At the signing, Clinton said: "I have long sought to streamline federal appeals for convicted criminals sentenced to the death penalty…  For too long, and in too many cases, endless death row appeals have stood in the way of justice being served… from now on, criminals sentenced to death for their vicious crimes will no longer be able to use endless appeals to delay their sentences." (Amnesty International Report: "'Where is the justice for me?' The Case of Troy Davis," Feb. 2007

Today’s globalized world, with the U.S. at the top, is a world of lean-and-mean capitalism, of wars of empire, and deep economic crisis. And the situation of Black people in particular, as well as other people of color, is especially acute. For literally centuries, the highly exploited labor of Black people—first as slaves, then as sharecroppers, and then in the worst jobs in factories and mills—has been the source of vast wealth for the rulers of the U.S. But changes in the economy as well as conscious racist policies of the ruling class have squeezed huge sections of Black people, especially the youth, out of the job market altogether. Now, having deprived these youth of a future, the rulers increasingly fear them. The ruling class is increasingly relying on the open use of violence and repression to force people to accept conditions of life that are truly unacceptable. And while other sections of society are affected by this, the main focus of this amped-up repression is Blacks and Latinos, especially the youth. The death penalty, wielded, as Clinton emphasized, swiftly and surely, is an integral part of all this.

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