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Justice or Politics?
March 25, 2002
By Why

It is strange how fundamentalists will vigorously defend the rights of a small collection of cells numbering in the low powers of two, yet support the death penalty at the same time. It is even stranger how quickly they will shift their gears when one of their own commits murder. Suddenly, the rhetoric changes from "what part of 'thou shalt not kill' don't you understand?" to "she was mentally incapacitated and therefore not responsible for what she did." The sharp line of transition between black and white suddenly softens into the shades of gray that fundamentalists have been insisting for eons do not exist.

I am strongly opposed to the death penalty, whether the victim is some nameless stranger or someone close to me. I oppose the death penalty because it is impossible to be objective enough to apply it evenly across the board. If Andrea Yates hadn't received so much media attention, if she didn't receive so much support from the fundamentalist Christians who joined the usual anti-death penalty people in an odd-bedfellows sort of alliance to defend her, or if she were, say, African-American, she would most certainly be on Death Row right now. Fundamentalist Christianity didn't save Karla Faye Tucker; instead of showing what might be construed as mercy, understanding, or sympathy, all apparently traits unbecoming a conservative Republican candidate for President of the United States, then-Governor George W. Bush publicly laughed at her. Why should fundamentalist Christianity have saved Andrea Yates, who killed five children, who did nothing to her, in a bathtub full of water? What a difference media attention makes.

Betty Beets, killed her abusive husband, was also executed in Texas last year. I doubt the attorney representing her was anywhere near the caliber of Ms. Yates defense counsel. Judging from the picture of her shown on some anti-death penalty websites, she also wasn't as, shall we say, photogenic, as Ms. Yates. Of course, killing someone who fundamentalists say you should submit to, even if that someone is abusive to the point where one might argue that the deed was done in self-defense, is not the same as drowning one's own children one at a time, chasing the oldest one (who caught on to what was going on) through the house.

I am not disagreeing with the Yates verdict. Despite passionate arguments that she was mentally incapacitated, a jury who had the benefit of far better testimony than is usually the case in the Lone Star State decided that she was indeed guilty, yet decided against sending her to Death Row. So be it. My complaint is that most defendants, including many who had good reasons to do what they did, aren't dealt with as fairly as Ms. Yates was, particularly in places like Texas. Furthermore, regardless of whether one personally believes the death penalty is actually an effective means of justice, the failure to be sufficiently objective in dispensing death sentences undermines whatever deterrent value such punishment is supposed to have in reducing violent crime.

Is Texas finally waking up? Until the mentally ill, retarded, youthful offenders, or spuriously convicted who remain on Texas' Death Row have their sentences reviewed and adjusted in accordance with the Yates precedent, I seriously doubt it. Until this happens, I will remain steadfast in my belief that the Yates sentencing was the product of Establishment Clause defying, double-standard politics, nothing more.

The author is a recovering Republican who publishes a somewhat partisan webzine in his spare time.

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