Danny Glover: The Death Penalty in This Great Nation of Ours

Speech given at Princeton considers the fallibility of our justice system and the finality of death.

Good evening. Tonight I would like to discuss with you a practice that separates the United States from every other country in the Western Hemisphere. This, of course, is the use of homicide as an official tool of the state, otherwise known as the death penalty.

But first I would like to talk to you for a moment about consumer protection. You see, in this great nation of ours, we have laws on the books that protect consumers from faulty products. We protect consumers from drugs that are dangerous. From foodstuffs that are poisonous. From toys and appliances that are defective. The list goes on and on. We have many regulatory agencies that hire thousands of inspectors and adopt reams and reams of regulations to protect us. The Food and Drug Administration. The Environmental Protection Agency. The people who inspect our eggs and beef and poultry and milk.

Imagine, if you will, that you visited your doctor, and she or he prescribed a drug that works miracles for six out of every seven people who take it. But due to a defect with the drug, one out of every seven people who take the drug end up dying.

You can imagine the many lawsuits that would ensue. You can imagine how quickly this drug would be yanked off the market. You can imagine the congressional hearings, the charges and countercharges, the acrimony and finger-pointing that would follow as we rushed to keep our people safe—in this great nation of ours.

Now. Let's talk about the death penalty.

Since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in the 1970s, 741 people have been executed in the United States. Unfortunately, as I give this speech, that number is climbing to 743, courtesy of the states of Georgia and Texas.

And yet 98 people, or about one out of every seven executed, have walked off death row after new evidence emerged that proved their absolute innocence.

Let me be very clear here. I am not talking about people whose sentences or convictions were overturned on what some might call a technicality. I am talking about actual innocence.

Think about it. If one of every seven car tires sold in this country was subject to a blowout, if one of every seven chickens taken to market infected someone with salmonella, if one of every seven cars manufactured had a faulty engine that exploded every now and again, these things would be taken off the market.

But for every seven people executed since 1976, one actually innocent person has been sent to death row. Yet the death penalty remains “on the market.”

There are, of course, many reasons why I oppose the death penalty, in addition to the fact that I believe innocent people can be executed and in fact have been executed.

I'd like to share with you some of these reasons.

Many of you know I worked on the case of Gary Graham. Gary came from the fifth ward in Houston, Texas. He was convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery-murder of a shopping clerk. There are many things about Gary's case that are illustrative of the kind of problems caused by the death penalty.

Number one: Gary was a juvenile when it was alleged he committed the crime for which he was convicted. Only five other countries are known to have executed children in the past decade—Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Yemen. But in the U.S., 13 states, including Texas, allow for the execution of people who commit crimes as juveniles.

Number two: Gary was Black. Black people make up 12.1 percent of our nation's population—but comprise 43 percent of death rows across the United States. Racial disparities continue to define who lives and who dies under this punishment.

Number three: Gary was convicted on the very shaky eyewitness testimony
of one person. The Bible in the Book of Numbers says we shouldn't
convict on the testimony of one eyewitness. But our courts say

Number four: When Gary's supporters discovered new evidence of innocence, the courts wouldn't hear it. You see, the Congress and the State Legislatures have put time limits for the introduction of new evidence. New evidence can show a person's innocence, but if it is not introduced in time, it may not be heard. The Supreme Court has even ruled that as long as a person has received fair trial, it is not unconstitutional to execute an innocent person. Now does that make any sense?

Number five: Gary was from Texas. Texas has executed 253 people since reinstatement—or more than one third of the people executed in the United States. Many of those executions were from Houston, Gary's home town. Harris County, which encompasses Houston, has sent 63 people to the death chamber since 1976. If it were a state, Harris County would rank third in the number of people executed, behind Texas and Virginia.

Gary Graham was executed in the summer of 2000. His case pointed out then many problems the death penalty brings to our system of justice. Incompetent legal counsel, racial bias. The possibility—in this case the probability of innocence, the very issue of disproportionality—Gary probably would not have been executed if he was from a different state or if he had drawn a different prosecutor or a different jury.

But the tide is turning. The very same tide that swept up Gary Graham and so many like him is now turning. Consider these developments:

The U.S. Supreme Court this term is set to take up the question of whether mentally retarded people can be executed. 18 states have banned this barbaric practice—including five states this year alone. Across the globe, a strong international consensus against execution of the retarded has emerged. Of those countries that still employ capital punishment, only two—the United States and Kyrgyzstan—regularly put the retarded to death.

Fifteen states have banned the execution of people who commit crimes as juveniles. Next year, Arizona, Kentucky, Ohio and Missouri will consider similar legislation.

Across the nation, a healthy moratorium movement is battling the notion of state-sponsored homicide. The republican governor of Illinois declared a moratorium in his state after many innocent people were discovered on death row, some with rapidly approaching execution dates. States like California, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania are giving birth to healthy moratorium campaigns. In the state of North Carolina alone, elected officials in 14 town and cities have passed resolutions supporting a moratorium on executions.

Nationwide, 58 towns, cities, and counties have done likewise—and polls consistently show that more than 60 percent of the American public supports a moratorium on the death penalty. Since September 11, the poll numbers have only risen slightly.

Around the globe, 110 nations have abolished the death penalty, either in law or in practice. This growing list includes Chile and Yugoslavia, both of whom outlawed the practice earlier this year.

So yes, the tide is turning, but now we face a new and profound challenge. I refer of course to the events of September 11th.

It has been said that war is never the friend of social justice movements. When we fear, we clamp down on those who do not think like we think or do not look like we look.

Since September 11th, we have seen our federal government incarcerate without trial or access to bail more than 1,000 people, mostly of Middle Eastern or Southern Asian descent. Now it is revealed that Attorney General John Ashcroft wants to allow Federal Authorities to listen in on privileged conversations between these detainees and their lawyers. Furthermore, the government will no longer reveal how many people are being illegally incarcerated or where they are being held—this despite the fact that the FBI has admitted that 99 percent of those detained have nothing to do with the events of September 11th.

It gets worse. Just this week, President Bush unveiled a proposal to create special military courts to operate outside the nation's boundaries—and possibly even outside the boundaries of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. These courts will make it easier for the prosecutors to seek—and get—the death penalty.

It is clearly a slippery slope we are on. We cannot be silent while such tactics are employed by a president who make his political career off the backs of those condemned. We must stand vigilant against Bush in these times and work onward and together toward abolition.

Thank you.

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