Stepping out of the shadow of Dukakis
Today, I want to post a blog that the producer on our documentary project One For Ten has written about the death penalty that I thought you'd all like a read of. You can read more of Megan's writing at our blog. - Cheers Will
In this video clip from the 1988 presidential debate, it takes then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis all of 4 sentences, comprised of 85 words, to destroy his campaign. The moment is so brief that the entire clip, question and answer, is only 41 seconds. It has taken politicians 25 years to forget those 41 seconds.
“Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?
“No I don’t, Bernard.”
It's an interesting time to be involved in the death penalty debate. We’re only a few months into 2013 and already we’ve seen repeal bills filed in several states. Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley announced he was making repeal of capital punishment a priority in the upcoming legislative session. Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, a conservative Democrat seated firmly in a very conservative Southern state, said he would support a death penalty repeal measure if one was drafted.
As a recent piece in The Economist points out, Beebe's statement is "more than a curiosity." Despite poll results that show a majority (almost two-thirds) of Americans still support the death penalty, the use of capital punishment is ebbing. According to the end-of-year report from the Death Penalty Information Center, the number of death sentences handed out was at record lows in 2011 and 2012, down 75 percent since 1996, and over the past five years, five states have abolished capital punishment. Something is shifting in the U.S.
After those 41 seconds in which Michael Dukakis told Bernard Shaw of CNN he did not support the death penalty, his poll numbers dropped from 49 percent on the day before to 42 percent on the day after. Pundits were saying it was that question that cost him the election. The public had spoken. And politicians listened.
They listened so well in fact that in 1992 then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton flew home in the midst of his presidential campaign to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Prior to his arrest Rector had attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, resulting in irreparable damage to his brain. He was so incapable of understanding his pending execution that when eating his last meal, he set aside the piece of pecan pie he ordered, telling prison guards he was saving it “for later.” Clinton declined to issue an order of clemency and made sure the execution was carried out, proving to those moderate, on-the-fence voters that he was just as tough on crime as any Republican.
And so it went, election after election. Ambitious governors, local officials and legislators either touted their ability to be ‘tough on crime,’ or if they had reservations, kept their mouths shut.
But now there's suddenly been a recent spate of governors and legislators bucking the popular vote and voicing their concern. In Alabama, Senator Hank Sanders has filed five bills challenging the state’s use of capital punishment and pushing reform. In Colorado, Senator Clair Levy is sponsoring a bill to abolish the state’s death penalty and will introduce it if she thinks it stands a chance of passing. On Wednesday, February 27, the Oregon House Judiciary Committee heard House Joint Resolution 1, which would change the state’s murder law to read, “a sentence of death may not be imposed or executed.” And in Texas, the state that carries out the most executions, Rep. Harold Dutton has again filed a measure to outlaw the death penalty.
It’s hard to say what exactly prompted this shift. Maybe it was Georgia’s executing Troy Davis despite the case against him being filled with holes and doubt. Maybe it was Texas Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign reigniting scrutiny of the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who arson experts say could not possibly have set the fire that killed his two children and landed him on death row. But somewhere along the way, the debate on death has changed and many who were previously silent are asking questions and seeking answers.
The stage is set for something to change. The death penalty has moved from the shadows into the national spotlight, and appears to be garnering more media coverage than it has in decades. This shift is why we’re so excited about One For Ten, which will not only tell the stories of death row exonerees, but will encourage dialogue and debate by engaging our audience and getting them directly involved. We don’t want those in public office to be the only voices shaping the debate. We want anyone and everyone to get involved: to ask questions, give us feedback, talk about our films with your friends and neighbors.
Humanity doesn’t end with a conviction, and sometimes, neither does innocence. We hope that by engaging with us and with those who have been pulled furthest down the rabbit hole of the American legal system, you’ll find that our nation doesn’t need to be left incapacitated by 1988. Twenty-five years have gone by without a serious discussion of our most severe laws; we have a lot to catch up on.
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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.