On January 6, 2004 the
state of Arkansas executed 44-year
old Charles Singleton, who was convicted of stabbing a grocery
store clerk to death in 1979. He was on death row longer than
any other Arkansas inmate. The Singleton case was not unusual
in and of itself. Singleton was Black and his victim, Mary
Lou York, was white. The execution ended in the usual way with
trying in vain to spare their client’s life, and outside agitation
from the usual suspects – Europeans pleading
with an American Governor to stop an execution. The execution
took place in a southern state, where the overwhelming
majority of murders and executions take place.
But the Charles Singleton
case raised another important issue for the American criminal
justice system. Singleton was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.
words were an incomprehensible ramble that made sense to
no one but himself.
blind think I'm playing a game. They deny me, refusing me existence.
everybody takes the place of another. As it is written, I will
come forth as you go."
In 1986 the Supreme
Court ruled that execution of the mentally ill constituted cruel
and unusual punishment. The state of Arkansas concluded that
if Singleton were given anti-psychotic medication he would be “sane” and
therefore eligible for execution. Lower courts ruled in Singleton’s
favor, but the decision was later overturned, and the United
States Supreme Court let that decision stand
Black Arkansan who suffered from mental illness, Ricky Ray
Rector, became world
famous upon his execution in 1992. Then Governor Bill Clinton
left the campaign trail in January of that year to sign the warrant
for Rector’s execution. Rector’s mental capacity was such that
when taken from his cell as a “dead man walking” he told a guard
to save his pie. He thought he would return to finish his dessert.
I try to remember this story when I am told that all Black people
love Bill Clinton or that he should be considered the first Black
president. Clinton wasn’t Black when Rector needed him. He was
just another politician who didn’t want to be labeled soft on
number of executions, death row populations, and support for
have all dropped in
recent years, 64% of Americans still support the death penalty.
That strong level of support is why the punishment still exists.
Most politicians are like Bill Clinton on the presidential campaign
An accusation that a candidate for office is “soft” on
crime or “coddles” criminals can be enough to finish a political
career. It is significant that an archaic word like “coddle” is
dusted off and removed from the attic to demonize those deemed
insufficiently harsh. No politician wants to be branded as a “coddler” of
as with every other issue in America race is never far from
discussions of the death
penalty. Blacks are just 12% of the overall population but 42%
of residents on death row. Whites are 50% of murder victims but
represent 80% of victims in death penalty cases. The death penalty
is used to punish people of color who kill
whites. Black victims of Black killers get short shrift from
the criminal justice system and the media, unless there is a
lurid story line or celebrity involvement. Otherwise, our all
too common intra-group victimization goes unnoticed.
a declining national crime rate too many of us are convinced
of the need
for the state to become a killer. If America is to be rid of
the hoax that is capital punishment we have to ask, “What is
the appeal of state sanctioned murder?” Massachusetts has one
of the lowest murder
rates in the nation, ranking 37 out of 50, and yet its Republican
Governor, Mitt Romney, is in the process of devising death penalty legislation.
One of the inconsistencies of those who advocate capital punishment
is that they ordinarily do not trust government and belittle
it whenever possible. The same people who castigate government
at every opportunity suddenly become trusting of the institution
when it has to decide who should live and who should die. In
the conservative mind government is incompetent at best and evil
at worst. And yet the same incompetent or evil bureaucrats who
shouldn’t be trusted to collect taxes ought to be able to make
life and death decisions in capital punishment cases that require
the wisdom of Solomon.
If Americans were honest
they would admit that they support the death penalty because
they want revenge. By now most honest people concede that the
deterrent effect of execution is non-existent and few are unaware
of an increasing number of death row exonerations. But apparently
it is too difficult to give up the thirst for retribution, especially
in a society where racism still looms so insidiously large.
None of the current
Democratic presidential candidates has signed an execution warrant a
la Clinton, but that is because there is only one governor
in the race, Howard Dean, and his state, Vermont, is among those
without a death penalty statute. Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley-Braun
stand out as being the only candidates opposed to
the death penalty. Given the opportunity, most of the 2004 candidates
would act as Bill Clinton did back in 1992.
year 2004 did not begin well for Charles Singleton or for the
rest of us either.
In the 21st century too many of us are still wedded to the notion
that cruel and unusual punishments must be maintained to keep
us all safe. It is time to stop the killing of paranoid schizophrenics
on our behalf. We can’t depend on politicians for leadership
when they are following the worst instincts of American voters.
It is only a matter of time before another Ricky Ray Rector becomes
a trophy for a winning candidate.
Freedom Rider column appears weekly in . Ms.
Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City. She
can be reached via e-Mail at [email protected]. You can read more
of Ms. Kimberley's writings at http://freedomrider.blogspot.com/