The death penalty

The way in which we choose who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living. (Justice Brennan).

LOOKING AT THE DEATH PENALTY: PART I
McCarver v. NC, 00-8727

The system of capital punishment in this country is inherently wrong. Studies from the American Civil Liberties Union show that poverty and race greatly influence who gets executed and who does not. Also, we have mentally retarded individuals who commit a crime and are put to death for it.

In North Carolina, Ernest McCarver a forty-year-old man was convicted of the January 1987 stabbing and choking of Woodrow Hartly, a 71-year-old worker at the Concord cafeteria where McCarver had worked. The Supreme Court agreed on March 19 to consider whether executing the mentally retarded amounts to “cruel and unusual” punishment in violation of the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The court justices halted the execution just hours before McCarver was to be put to death.

The courts used the case of Texas death row inmate Johnny Paul Penry in 1988, whose mental retardation wasn’t considered by the court and who was hence executed. McCarver’s Attorney Seth Cohen of Greensboro says that in his client’s case, the jury considered his mental retardation, but they sentenced him to death anyway.

Lawyers say that McCarver has the mind of a 10-year-old and he reads at third- grade level. However, the most recent IQ test arranged by the defense team scored 67, but his IQ was measured at between 70–80 before his 1988 trial.

Lawyers of the state said that considerable evidence showed that McCarver was not mentally retarded, but that if he were, his execution would not violate the constitution.

In denying him clemency, North Carolina Governor, Mike Easley said McCarver had planned and orchestrated Hartley’s murder and was motivated by revenge against a former co-worker. He said that McCarver was competent enough to gain employment and earn work privileges and that no court had found him incompetent.

Mike Easley had denied McCarver’s clemency petition hours before his scheduled execution. Easley has also led the fight to remove the state’s prison cap and his efforts have kept more than 4,000 offenders imprisoned in North Carolina and have doubled the average time served by felons.

However, rarely are there clear standards of measurement in capital punishment cases or adequate funding to determine whether an individual is mentally retarded. Often in these cases the side that “protects” the public does not question the root cause of the problem. Instead, the human being, (let us not forget that) on death row is often depicted as evil, undeserving of life, and inhuman. If McCarver had planned the crime, was motivated by revenge, or was competent enough to gain employment, as Easley assumes, this is still not a reason to take his life.

I remember seeing a pin once that read something to the effect of, “why do we insist on killing people who kill people, to show that killing people is wrong.” By condoning the death penalty, the state stoops to the level of the perpetrator and places the government in a reactionary role rather than leadership role. As Easley accused McCarver of acting in revenge, to a similar extent, the state acts in revenge when they kill a person.

In addition, rather than treat the sick the state makes it difficult for them to receive health care. Many are left alone in the streets with special medical needs. How can our society ignore these larger problems? Isn’t McCarver’s action a cry for help?
Thirteen states that have capital punishment prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded. In addition, another twelve states do not have capitol punishmen, whereas North Carolina condones capital punishment and has shown that it would execute the mentally retarded.

What does this say about humanity when we kill human beings and particularly the mentally disabled? Our state becomes an environment that shows no compassion and condones violence.

Next week’s Guilfordian will have Part II of this article, as I continue to grapple with this issue, by including insights from folks working close to, or with, death penalty cases. Feel free to send a letter to the editor if you have any questions or ideas that you would like to share.