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Demise of the death penalty

An operative with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty came through Arkansas last week. He met with local people who want to circulate petitions to ask the governor to impose a moratorium on executions. They want him to appoint a commission to study whether the death penalty, at least the way Arkansas is doing it, is fair and appropriate.

Some might wonder why a death penalty abolitionist from Washington would waste his time on a culturally conservative Southern state like Arkansas. We alternately get called the Bible Belt and the Death Belt, and local people don’t much notice any contradiction.

But there are a lot of good and reasonable people in this state, just as there are a lot of good and reasonable people in such conservative environs as New Mexico, Nebraska and Montana. In those states, measures to repeal or suspend the death penalty came remarkably close to passage in recent legislative debates.

If you tell these people about Angel Diaz, they’ll cringe. Some will be plagued with uncertainty about whether he was guilty. Nearly all will say that was no way to try him and no way to execute him.

Bad guys were in a topless bar in Miami late one night in 1979. At closing time, customers and employees got locked in a room while the place was robbed. When the customers got out, they found the manager shot dead.

Police determined years later that Diaz had been among the perpetrators. He had a long history of criminality, including shooting and wounding a policeman. One of the other alleged perpetrators, by then in prison for something else, copped a plea to testify against Diaz, making him out to be the shooter.

Diaz convinced a judge he could represent himself at trial in 1986, though his English was so bad he needed an interpreter. He scuffed about the courtroom in shackles. During sentencing, Diaz asked for a lawyer, and got one.

Shortly before last Christmas, he was executed. What ought to have taken 15 minutes took 34.

They couldn’t find his veins and the lethal cocktail didn’t work properly. So Diaz got a double shot that left him, for a time, conscious, but paralyzed, probably in pain and unable to express it. A witness described him as grimacing and shuddering. Both his arms were burned with chemicals.

Across the country, people are questioning whether lethal injection is humane, at least as administered by people who aren’t doctors. The American Medical Association formally opposes the participation of its members in the exercise.

Then-Gov. Jeb Bush beheld this barbarism, set up a commission and ordered a moratorium. Now Florida’s new governor has continued that moratorium.

A half-dozen other states have moratoriums pending reviews of evidence and/or studies of whether the procedure is humane. It appeared last week that New Jersey was about to repeal its death penalty.

Hardly a week passes without new evidence somewhere either raising questions about a death penalty conviction or thoroughly exonerating someone. This is almost always a matter of new DNA evidence rendering impossible the events to which human eyewitnesses — the least reliable providers of evidence — had sworn under oath.

Some say DNA science will eventually make the death penalty foolproof. But a drive-by shooter in a drug-related case won’t leave any DNA. The Diaz case had no DNA evidence.

Well-meaning people everywhere are beginning to see the inherent flaws and unfairness. People aren’t ready to give up the option to kill the really bad guys, to extract an eye and tooth for an eye and tooth, but they want to know they’re killing the right guys. Even then, they’d prefer to treat even their worst fellowmen as well as they’d treat a rabid dog.


John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton’s first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

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