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The True Face of Death Row-A report from Terre Haute

by Sandra Ahten Wednesday, Jun. 13, 2001 at 2:52 AM

An Indy Media REporter from Urbana IL covers the McVeigh execution and gives a report on the true face of Death Row in America.

errorThe True Face of Death Row -- Report From Terre Haute

by Sandra Ahten

The true face of the penal system and the haunting specter of death row are being exposed during the month of June in the United States of America.

We can focus our gaze on Terre Haute, Indiana - where this morning a clear midwestern sunrise brought the first federal exectuion in 38 years. But,we could also look more widely at instances through out the country. We can start with a glance toward Florida.

Jerry Townsend, a former carnival worker who has an IQ below 60, spent 21 years in prison. He had confessed to killing four women, but in April, DNA testing cleared Townsend, now 49, in two of the four convictions. Subsequent to this, the States Attorneys Office in Fort Lauderdale found no credible evidence to support any of the four convictions. Townsend was released from prison last week (June 7, 2001).

On June 8, Joaquin Jose Martinez was freed after a five years incarceration. He was convicted in the deaths of a Florida couple. Only the testimony of Martinezs ex-wife linked him to the crime and, although she originally implicated him, she changed her story several times.

Martinez was sentenced to die, until the appeals process won his freedom last week. Mr. Martinez is Spanish. His parents, who moved to the United States in the early 1970s and live in Miami, waged a persistent fight to free him. According to a Death Penalty abolitionist reporting from Spain the $500,000 cost for the retrial defense was largely provided from the pockets of fellow Spaniard working people. He immediately returned to Madrid.

On June 19, Jaun Raul Garza, age 44, will be executed in Terre Haute at the Federal Penitentiary. Like 17 of the other 20 inmates on Federal Death Row, he is non caucasion.

In 1993, Garza, was convicted of running a marijuana smuggling operation, killing one man, and ordering the slayings of two others he thought were informants.

This morning, June 11 at 7am Timothy McVeigh was executed in Terre Haute Indiana. Although he is far from the typical death row inmate, some consider McVeigh a "posterboy" for the death penalty, stating that if anyone deserves to be executed, McVeigh is the one.

In Terre Haute on the night before the execution, his biographer Dan Herbeck, co-author of "American Terrorist" spoke with this reporter representing the Urbana-Champaign Indy Media Center.

"Even though he was clearly guilty of his crime, I think that all that happened with his case -- with the FBI evidence fiasco -- is going to point out the weakness of the death penalty. If that could happen to him, then what is happening, all over the country, to destitute guys who have court appointed attorneys?"
Goal of Activists: More Dialogue - More Awareness
Ten years ago, Carolyn Gray from Jupiter, Florida did not know what the face of death row looked like.

She says she "majored in shopping and deciding what movie to go to next." This week she made the trip from Florida to Terre Haute in order to be a presence at the McVeigh execution.

She came hoping that a large anti-death penalty contingent might create more dialogue on the subject.

"We dont get enough of a chance to talk about it," she stated, "In the presidential debates, one question was asked about it. Unfortunatley, Mr. Lehrer gave both candidates a pass on it, because he let them suggest that there is a deterrent effect. Not only has it not proven a deterrent effect, but in states without the death penalty, the murder rate is lower - and after a highly publicized execution, the murder rate goes up."

Ms. Gray is correct. More than 200 studies on deterrence have been done and no deterrent effect from the death penalty has been detected.

One often cited 1985 study shows a deterrent effect, but there are serious flaws in its methodology. Recent studies have shed light on the disturbing possibility of a 'brutalization effect'-- an increase in violence and murders following executions.

A September 2000, New York Times article cited a state-by-state analysis which found that during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 - 101 percent higher than in states without the death penalty.

Murder rates in states which have abolished the death penalty are 4.9 per 100,000 population; in states still using the death penalty murder rates are 9.1 per 100,000.
Numbers Show Racial Bias, Denied by Feds

Carolyn Gray is also upset about the racial bias in the death penalty. That is part of the reason she would like to be in Terre Haute next week. However, she said she made this trip to Indiana on her "last dime" and so wont be returning next week when Juan Raul Garza is scheduled to be executed.

President Clinton granted a stay of execution for Mr. Garza, who was scheduled to be executed ahead of Tim McVeigh. In conjunction with the stay, Clinton ordered a survey and assessment of the federal death penalty system. This was based, in part on Mr. Garzas appeal which stated "that no one can have any confidence that Mr. Garza's ethnicity and state of prosecution were not factors in the Government's decision to seek the death penalty against him."

Attorney General Janet Reno complied with the Presidents order and directed the study of the decision-making processes and demographic factors in federal capital cases last year. The Department of Justice published an initial report of the results of this study in September. Last week, a supplement was added to the report.

The further analyses showed that of the 682 defendants reviewed under the Department's death penalty decision-making procedures in the period 1995 to 2000: 48% were Black; and 29% were Hispanic; and 20% were White.

Reno let the Federal Justice Department off the hook despite damning statistics. She reasoned that this was "not unique in any sense to the Federal Death Penalty context, but true of the entire criminal justice system, both state and federal." She also reported, "The information gathered by the Department indicates that the cause of this disproportion is not racial or ethnic bias, but the representation of minorities in the pool of potential federal capital cases. A factor of particular importance is the focus of federal enforcement efforts on drug trafficking enterprises and related criminal violence."

Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (CUADP) says that the actual profile, not just of Federal death row, but of State and Federal looks more like this: 70% Black; 13% White; 13% Latino; and 4% Asian. They however hold the federal system responsible and do not abdicate them simply because other systems are just as racially biased.

Which Victims Count?
Death Penalty proponents often claim that the penalty is helpful for the victims families. At Terre Haute on Sunday night, Abe Bonowitz, director of CUADP, was asked, "What about the 168 victims?"

He replied, "Politicians say the death penalty is for the victims - yet we see the death penalty used very few times in murder convictions its hypocritical. What is being said then, is that your victim is more valuable than 98% of the other victims of murder."

In fact only 1 out of 100 convicted murderers is sentenced to death. Even for defendants accused in the same crime, bizarre disparities in sentencing exist. Those sentenced to death are not necessarily those who have committed the most atrocious crimes. Rather they tend to people who are poor, people of color, and those whose victims were white.

You can visit the website of CUADP at www.cuadp.org. They will have links to the protest and vigils that will take place next week during the Juan Raul Garza execution.
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