Company That You Keep
October 23, 2002
Sometimes it's the company that we keep that best demonstrates
our virtues and our faults. As an undergraduate studying philosophy
I always found myself drawn to the schools of thought stressing
the importance of interpersonal relations. As individuals
we exist not independently of others but are rather intensely
dependent on our ability to interact with and communicate
with others. It is a romantic and passionate notion that I
am only myself with (or without) you. This is true for nations
I have long opposed the death penalty and have seldom wavered
in my belief that its practice devalues not only the life
it terminates - it demeans those condoning its practice. And
I have found support for this conviction in my interactions
with those on both sides of the issue. I have many friends
who support the death penalty - but my simpatico with those
opposing it has always been much stronger.
As the United States seeks to cast itself as the moral compass
and sole superpower in a post-cold war, free market, global
economy world, it's helpful to consider our domestic policies
in relation to those of other nations.
I'm grateful to the United States Supreme Court for the opportunity
to draw some parallels between our current standards of justice
and those of our neighbors, near and far. Today, in a 5-4
split decision, Kevin Stanford's habeas corpus petition was
denied (Stanford v. Kentucky) and the Supreme Court
will not review his case. His appeals are exhausted and barring
the clemency of Kentucky governor, Paul Patton, he will be
According to Amnesty International, there are currently 84
countries that actively utilize the death penalty. The U.S.
is one. One hundred and eleven nations are considered to be
abolitionist in either law or practice. The U.S. is not one.
Kevin Stanford is a convicted murderer. In 1981 he and two
other men, David Buchanan and Troy Johnson, went to the Chekker
Oil gas station in Louisville. They held the attendant, Baerbel
Poore, at gunpoint and stole $140 and 300 cartons of cigarettes.
Buchanan and Stanford next took her into the bathroom where
they raped and sodomized the twenty year old. After this they
abducted her and took her to a remote area in the neighborhood
where she was shot twice in the head.
In the United States a trial by jury in 38 states or in the
federal justice system can result in a sentence of death.
Kentucky is one of them.
At the time of the murder Kevin Stanford was 17 and a regular
user of alcohol, marijuana and mescaline. As a young boy Stanford
was sexually abused by (at least) a babysitter, a cousin and
a transvestite friend of his mother. Two neighborhood boys
would require him to perform oral sex on them or stay trapped
in a doghouse. He was beaten with extension cords and has
scars on his legs and back.
Of the nations that still allow a sentence of death, more
than 110 exclude childhood offenders from that sentence by
either law or adherence to international treaty. The United
States is not one of them.
In 2001 over 3000 people were executed in 31 countries (less
than 1500 were executed in 2000). Last year over 5200 were
sentenced to die in 69 countries around the world. While China
accounted for more than half of the executions in 2001 - a
"get tough on crime" policy that helps to explain the radical
jump in numbers - four nations, China (1781), Iran (139),
Saudi Arabia (79) and the United States (66) accounted for
90 percent of all executions worldwide. As of January 1 of
this year over 3700 persons in the United States are sentenced
In 2001 three people were executed for crimes committed when
they were under the age of 18. They were executed in three
different countries: Iran, Pakistan and the United States.
There are currently 82 persons scheduled to die in the United
States for crimes they committed as juveniles.
With regards to the case of Stanford v. Kentucky,
Justice John Paul Stephens wrote for the four dissenting justices
that the execution of those convicted of crimes committed
as minors is "a relic of the past and is inconsistent with
evolving standards of decency in a civilized society." This
echoes Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's own writing in 1988:
"...there is some age below which a juvenile's crimes can
never be constitutionally punished by death... our precedents
require us to locate this age in light of the evolving standards
of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."
In June (Atkins v. Virginia) the high court reversed
a 1989 decision that upheld the constitutionality of executing
the mentally retarded. Many hoped that this reversal signaled
a trend in the court that would allow for increasing limitations
on the use of the death penalty, a trend that could lead toward
the eventual abolition of government-sanctioned execution
in the U.S.
There were other signs for hope as well. Since 1973, over
one hundred prisoners in the U.S. have been released following
evidence of their innocence. Earlier this year Justice Sandra
Day O'Connor said, ''After 20 years on the high court, I have
to acknowledge that serious questions are being raised about
whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in
this country….if statistics are any indication, the system
may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed.''
This falls in line with the 1987 finding of the Intra-American
Commission on Human Rights that the "pattern of legislative
arbitrariness throughout the United States...results in the
arbitrary deprivation of life and inequality before the law."
In the past decade only seven nations worldwide have executed
prisoners convicted of crimes committed as minors: Congo,
Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United
States. And of these nations, the United States has executed
the most, 17 persons convicted of juvenile offenses. All of
these persons were aged 17 (one was 16) at the time of their
Since 1997 the United Nations has annually issued resolutions
calling on nations utilizing the death penalty to invoke moratoria
on the practice and move toward abolition. The United States,
along with 59 other nations, has disassociated itself from
this resolution. In 1999 the United States executed two German
nationals despite an injunction from the International Court
of Justice and has been found since to be in breach with its
obligations to Germany and the Vienna Convention of Consular
Relations. The U.S. currently holds over 100 foreign nationals
from 33 nations under sentence of death.
The United States' differences with and similarities to other
nations define our national character. As we place our policies
in alignment with and in opposition to those sovereign powers
that surround us, it is paramount that we find ourselves in
agreement with those whose moral character and virtue most
strongly express our noblest ends. By maintaining policies
of justice and punishment that parallel those of nations we
actively criticize and revile we are not growing divides along
partisan lines - we are nurturing a contradiction between
our moral ideals and our institutions, a contradiction not
to be endured.
T. K. Brookins lives and works in North Carolina. He can
be corresponded with at firstname.lastname@example.org