October 20, 2000


Commentary

The death Penalty, is it a presidential campaign issue?

By Jerome DeHerrera

In politics, there are reasons why citizens oppose one political party or candidate and support another. For Hispanics the most important of these reasons are education, health care and jobs.

But there are deeper, more profound reasons that Latinos should look closely at the record of Texas Gov. George Bush when they vote in November. The death penalty, although not on the minds of the press or the general electorate, should be of real concern to Hispanics.

The death penalty is the maximum punishment a society can mete out. One can quarrel about the morality of it. One can argue that it is a punishment that fits a crime. But the argument collapses totally if only one man or one woman is executed for a crime they did not commit.

As you know, there have been numerous cases in the past several years in which the guilt of the accused was doubtful. In Texas, the case of Gary Graham, a black man, was the most controversial. In Illinois, after 11 men who had been sentenced to death were acquitted and set free, its governor suspended the use of the death penalty.

In Texas, since he became governor, George W. Bush has presided over the execution of 22 Latinos and 99 more Latinos are on death row waiting through the appeal process. Across the country and especially in Texas, there is a disproportionate number of minorities sentenced to death.

Why are more minorities sentenced to death? Is it because of racial profiling and racial prejudice in the police departments? Or is it because minorities can't afford quality defense attorneys?

It is, indeed, a challenge for society to deal with criminals who commit brutal acts of murder and mayhem. Part of the challenge arises from the need to make sure that the punishment fits the crime. To meet that challenge, the state of Texas allegedly attempts to give every person awaiting execution every resource to defend themselves.

But how is this possible? Many Hispanic defendants do not speak English well, do not understand the judicial system and cannot afford a quality defense for their liberty and life. Some of these people could not successfully apply for food stamps much less figure out how to fight the combined power of the legal establishment and an often-inflamed public.

Many of the defendants cannot afford defense attorneys so they are forced to put their freedom and their life in the hands of public defenders or attorneys recruited by the courts. The minimal payment these attorneys receive usually leads to a minimal effort and a lower quality defense.

It is reasonable to believe that in this environment, innocent people have been and are being put to death. Even if one individual is wrongly executed it is an indictment against the use of capital punishment.

Gov. Bush suggests that he is a "compassionate conservative." Somehow administering capital punishment while there are doubts of guilt fits within his definition of compassion. It matters little that Gov. Bush may feel compassion when the state is executing a person who may in fact be innocent. What good is compassion then?

Public opinion in the United States still supports the death penalty, but executions by the federal government have basically stopped. If Bush is elected President, the horror of doubt he has unleashed in Texas will spread to the federal criminal justice system.

The history of discrimination in the criminal justice system and the strong family values of the Hispanic culture should more than make Latinos weary of electing a president who presided over 128 executions during his six years as Governor of Texas. These 128 executions are more than any other state besides Texas, has ever done.

Maybe we should keep that kind of compassionate conservatism in the state of Texas.

Jerome writes a political column from Washington D.C. Please send your comments to jeromedeherrera@yahoo.com.

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