Matthew T. Mangino
August 7, 2015
What has the death penalty taught us about American politics?
Words matter. When politicians speak, listen. Not because what they say is always important, but because what they say is not always what they mean. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court gave imprimatur to new legislation in several states that promised the death penalty would be reserved for the worst of the worst.
The penalty would apply to murders committed with aggravating factors. Today in Pennsylvania there are 19 aggravating factors. Did you know that a killer can get the death penalty for killing a woman in her third trimester of pregnancy? I guess the first and second trimesters are not that aggravating.
Nothing motivates a politician like being personally touched — or polling trends. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was about to be executed when a Gallup Poll found that 65 percent of people supported the death penalty, but 81 percent supported the execution of McVeigh. Sixteen percent of people who opposed the death penalty wanted McVeigh executed.
“Do you want me to be for you or against you?” That paraphrases and old political boss’ question to a young politician. The same holds true for the death penalty. A shrewd politician can get just as much political mileage out of being for the death penalty as she can being against the death penalty.
The Supreme Court doesn’t decide until you decide. In two landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court — one in 2002 dealing with intellectual disability and the other in 2005 dealing with juveniles — the court waited until 30 states had already struck down the execution of the intellectual disabled and juveniles before striking down both nationwide. A national consensus had been established before acting. Can anyone say polling?
Politicians sometimes twist the truth. Those opposed to the death penalty will suggest that innocent people have been executed. DNA has proven that juries get it wrong. There is no question about that; a significant number of people convicted of a crime have been exonerated by DNA. However, none of those people had been executed and only 17 had spent any time at all on death row.
When an election is on the line, a politician is capable of anything. In 1988, Democrat presidential nominee Michael Dukakis said during a debate he would not seek the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. Obviously, that did not sit well with voters — he lost.
In 1992, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democrat nominee, was not going to make the same mistake. He returned to Arkansas from the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a mentally ill inmate who asked the warden to save him a piece of pie for after the execution.
Politicians make empty promises. In Nebraska, the legislature abolished the death penalty, and overrode a governor’s veto. Yet Gov. Pete Rickets is raising money to have the matter placed on the ballot as a referendum. He obviously did not have enough votes to stop its abolition, or to uphold his veto, but he is going to seek to have death penalty reenacted?
Politicians are not always well informed. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty. The DA in Philadelphia was so incensed he sued the governor to stop this egregious conduct — “executions should proceed as normal.” Since 1976, Pennsylvania has executed three men — each waived their appeal rights. There has not been an involuntary execution in Pennsylvania since 1962.
Congress doesn’t care what you think. Massachusetts has not had the death penalty since 1984. A significant majority of citizens in Massachusetts are opposed to the death penalty. Yet in Massachusetts, the federal government sought and gained a death sentence against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber.
If you don’t vote (or can’t), you don’t matter. Hundreds of thousands of inmates are disenfranchised, but more importantly seriously mentally ill inmates make up about 16 percent of all inmates. Even more disturbing, seriously mentally ill death row inmates are also regularly executed in this country. In 2015, Derrick Charles and Cecil Clayton, both seriously mentally ill, were executed.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.