Democratic Underground  
The Company That You Keep
October 23, 2002
T. K. Brookins

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 also.

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 executed.

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 to die.

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 crimes.

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

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