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Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2001 / 15 Teves 5761

Don Feder

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Capital punishment opponents dead wrong -- JESSE JACKSON -- who regularly substitutes rhymes for reason -- was in Oklahoma last week as part of his nationwide anti-death-penalty tour.

The state is set to execute eight people this month, which has the misplaced-compassion crowd in a tizzy. "Oklahoma must choose to stop the death machine," Jesse told 500 people at the Fairview Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

Jackson is on the road again, bemoaning the fate of killers. In June, he witnessed the execution of Texas inmate Gary Graham, proclaiming him "an innocent martyr."

Morgan Reynolds, head of the Criminal Justice Center of the National Center for Policy Analysis, considers Graham an unlikely poster child for anti-death-penalty forces.

Among other incontrovertible evidence, there was an eyewitness to Graham's 1981 murder of Bobby Lambert. A deputy sheriff testified the martyr-to-be told him, "Next time, I'm not going to leave any witnesses."

The murder for which this gentle soul was sent into the great beyond was part of a crime spree that included four shootings, 10 armed robberies and a rape. (One of Graham's other victims said he told her, "I've killed three people, and I'm going to kill you.") State and federal courts turned down more than 40 of his appeals. Graham might be innocent. The Easter Bunny might have pulled the trigger. One is as probable as the other.

But the possibility of executing an innocent is the big gun of death penalty opponents. In this country, it takes roughly 11 years to pull the switch on a convicted murderer, more than enough time to test the original verdict, examine every scintilla of evidence and apply foolproof forensic procedures like DNA testing.

Despite all of this, it must be admitted that an innocent person can be executed. But innocents are already dying, at the rate of about 15,000 a year in America.

When murderers aren't executed, innocents suffer. Odds are a killer will be released at some point. And there's a fair chance that he or she will kill again. In fact, there's a far greater likelihood of this then of an innocent man taking that long walk.

Opponents argue that deterrence is a myth. How do they know? Survey takers don't go around asking, "Were you ever deterred from killing someone by the possibility that you might pay the ultimate price?"

Still, a cause and effect may be surmised.

Since 1973, when the death penalty was reimposed, we've had more than 660 executions nationwide. In 1999, the murder rate was the lowest since 1966 (5.7 per 100,000). Coincidence? Last year, Texas had half the executions in America. President-elect George Bush is still berated for presiding over more executions than any other governor.

The county that includes Houston has the most executions in the state. Between 1982, when executions were resumed in Texas, and 1996, Houston's homicide rate fell 63 percent. In the same period, the national homicide rate declined by 19 percent. Coincidence again?

In an article in Commentary, Yale Professor David Gelernter (who was almost killed by the Unabomber) argues: "We execute murderers in order to make a communal proclamation: that murder is intolerable. A deliberate murder embodies evil so terrible it defiles the community."

Will Jackson hold church rallies before the executions of the white supremacists who murdered James Byrd in 1998? Will he shed public tears for the monsters who dragged Byrd more than two miles behind their pickup truck, until his head and one limb were torn from his body?

Late last month, a federal judge in Denver granted Timothy McVeigh's petition to end attempts to stay his execution. A date for McVeigh's death can be set by the director of the federal Bureau of Prisons any time after Jan. 11.

McVeigh was convicted of the murders of 168 people in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

What do you think, Jesse? Is McVeigh an innocent martyr? Did he have adequate counsel? Are a disproportionate number of white militia-types being executed in America?

McVeigh ran his own private death machine. Unlike the death-row population, those who died that April day did not deserve their fate. Opponents of the death penalty never talk about such innocents. And if they care about them at all, you wouldn't know it.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate