Saturday, August 29, 2009

Walter Moore: Death penalty as political theater

The first was a vigil at the Governor's Mansion, protesting the state of Florida's execution of John Richard Marek and remembering Adela Marie Simmons, the innocent victim for whose death John Marek was executed. My second was reading a story by Associated Press writer Brendan Farrington about what Gov. Charlie Crist did at the time of the execution, together with a follow-up column by Paul Flemming in the Tallahassee Democrat ("Death, politics mix with execution," Aug. 21).

I'll treat the second experience first. No one should be surprised if politicians consider the political implications of their actions. It's what politicians do — at least the successful ones. So it is not surprising that matters political would cross Gov. Crist's mind as he prepared for the execution of John Marek last Wednesday. But there are — or should be — limits. Last week, the governor went beyond the limits.

The AP writer was allowed to observe the Governor during the last few minutes of Mr. Marek's life. Reading this account, readers must have been struck by the care with which the event was staged for the reporter, with a statue of Jesus and pictures of the victim as appropriate props. Flemming noted that he had asked to observe Gov. Crist during an earlier execution and had been denied, Flemming said, "for what struck me as reasonable points." Flemming is not being unduly cynical when he concludes, "I should have saved my request until Crist was running for U.S. Senate." This was political theater. It involved shameful — and shameless — exploitation, both of John Marek and of Adela Marie Simmons. The complicity of the AP writer in this exploitation was also troubling.

The vigil at the Governor's Mansion at the time of the execution was a dignified service involving some two dozen people. We lit candles, sang, prayed, and read from the world's religious traditions, words that remind us that those traditions call the death penalty seriously into question.

Two of my candle-holding companions made a special impact that evening. William Dillon is one of at least 23 exonerated Floridians, people convicted for capital offenses and then released because their convictions were found to be wrong. The fact that Dillon and the others were released does not demonstrate that "the system" works; most were exonerated through the efforts of agencies outside the system. Thanks largely to one such agency — the Innocence Project of Florida — Dillon was set free on Nov. 18, 2008, after spending 27 years in Florida's prisons.

Mary Hardison, a second companion at the vigil, has been corresponding with John Marek for more than 20 years, writing him as a way of saying God doesn't forget even the most forgotten of the human family. Over the years, she learned much about what characterized Marek's life: neglect, abuse, being uprooted and moved from home to home to home, all of which helped produce depression and a feeling of worthlessness.

What she said at the vigil was neither a defense of his actions nor a declaration of his innocence. But it served to underline what we already know, that so many of those who end up on Death Row are among the least privileged of our neighbors, people upon whom society has long since turned its back.

Almost a quarter-century ago, former Gov. LeRoy Collins called the death penalty "Florida's gutter of shame." The word "shame" is even more apt today.

At a time when the list of countries that retain the death penalty is becoming ever shorter (China, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the countries with more executions than we in 2008); when countries with which we like to compare ourselves, such as the members of the European Union, have abolished the practice; when other states in the U.S. are eliminating capital punishment (New Jersey, New York and New Mexico being the most recent examples); when the numbers of exonerations are increasing the public's justified fear that we may be executing innocent people; when the American Bar Association in its latest assessment again found serious flaws in Florida's administration of capital punishment, and repeated its call for a moratorium on executions in our state; at a time like this, it is shameful for our state — which leads the nation in the number of people released for being wrongly convicted — to continue with business as usual.

It is equally shameful that our governor, or any political leader in Florida, should think it is in his political interest to advertise his association with the death penalty.


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