Unreasonable Certainty

There are many reasons why the state should not execute people. One of the most compelling reasons for me is that courts and juries, much less prosecutors and governors, cannot be trusted to sort the innocent from the guilty.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams was dispatched by the state of California early Tuesday morning, Dec. 13, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied clemency. I can't say that the state didn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the co-founder of the Crips gang at least participated in the killings of four innocent people during two robberies, even if he reformed himself in prison.

But California still should not have taken his life.

For those who are unpersuaded by arguments about the morality of the death penalty, Cory Maye, on death row in Mississippi, offers a better case for why the state can't afford to risk capital punishment.

As recounted by Radley Balko at TheAgitator.com, Maye in January 2004 was convicted in Prentiss, Miss., of capital murder for shooting a police officer during a botched drug raid. As Balko, a journalist in Alexandria, Va., examined the case, it turned out that the task force, acting on an anonymous tip, had raided an alleged drug dealer living in a duplex the night of Dec. 26, 2001. Maye was in the other side of the duplex with his young daughter about 11:30 p.m. when a member of the task force looking for more drugs kicked in Maye's door and entered his bedroom.

Maye had no police record, was not the target of the search warrant and claimed that he never heard the police knock or identify themselves. Fearing for his life and the safety of his 18-month-old daughter in a high-crime neighborhood, he said, he fired at the black-clad intruder, hitting him in the abdomen, just below his bulletproof vest. Officer Ron Jones died a short time later.

Police at first said they found no drugs in Maye's side of the duplex. Later, they announced they had found "traces" of marijuana. Maye's attorney told Balko that police may have found the remains of one smoked marijuana cigarette in Maye's apartment. But since Maye was not the subject of the search warrant, the possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana was not really relevant.

What was relevant was that Ron Jones was the son of the town's police chief and Cory Maye was the black man who killed him. He was convicted of capital murder in January 2004. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

Texas is notorious for railroading indigents on capital murder charges. The Death Penalty Information Center (deathpenaltyinfo.org) lists eight from Texas and 122 people in 25 states overall who have been released from death row with evidence of innocence since 1973, when execution was reinstated.

One miscarriage that was caught too late involved Ruben Cantu, who was executed in 1993 continuing to proclaim his innocence in a San Antonio murder. Lise Olsen reported in the Houston Chronicle Nov. 20 that the only eyewitness against Cantu has recanted and says he was pressured by police to identify Cantu, who was 17 at the time of the murder and 26 when he was executed.

Juan Moreno, an illegal alien at the time of the shooting, had twice told police Cantu was not the one who shot him and killed other man during a 1984 robbery but police came back a third time and pressured him to name Cantu, a former special-ed student who grew up in a tough neighborhood on the south side of San Antonio.

In the meantime Cantu had been involved in an unrelated barroom shooting with an off-duty police officer. Charges were never filed in that case because officers apparently "tainted the evidence," the Chronicle reported, but a friend of the injured officer reopened the murder case, brought Moreno into the police station and convinced him to finger Cantu as the killer.

Cantu's co-defendant, David Garza, who'd been reluctant to talk about the murder-robbery since his trial, has now signed a sworn affidavit saying he allowed Cantu to be falsely accused. Key players in Cantu's death -- including the judge, prosecutor, head juror and defense attorney -- now acknowledge that his conviction seems to have been built on omissions and lies.

When I was a newspaper reporter in East Texas I covered several murder trials. One that sticks in my mind was in the early 1980s when a white man abducted a black man from outside a convenience store in Gladewater, Texas, drove him 15 miles to Gilmer, shot him at his house and claimed the victim was a burglar. Turned out the victim had been "dating" the abductor's wife. The prosecutor was proud to get a manslaughter conviction. It was the first time a white man had been sent to prison for killing a black man in Upshur County.

Times have changed, even in Upshur County, but a black or Latino man is still much more likely to land on death row than a white guy, particularly if the white guy has money. That won't change anytime soon, but if the state ever does pony up the money to hire qualified attorneys for poor defendants, we'll still have the biggest objection for a supposedly Christian nation: As John Prine put it, "Jesus don't like killin', no matter what the reason's for."


Gene McCarthy, R.I.P.

I was a freshman in high school in 1967 when Sen. Eugene McCarthy mounted his campaign for president against Lyndon Johnson and the war in Vietnam. Since my mom had gone to college with his wife, Abigail, Mom embraced the cause of the Minnesotan and enlisted the Cullen boys to push pamphlets at political events. We met the great man once at a campaign rally in Sioux City.

After McCarthy brought out the substantial anti-war constituency in New Hampshire, Johnson unexpectedly withdrew from the race. Bobby Kennedy jumped in and tested the loyalty of Catholic Democrats who still revered the memory of JFK. Mom stayed with Clean Gene, of course, while some of her friends followed Bobby. Both sides engaged in political infighting that alienated relationships for years afterward.

When we started The Progressive Populist, we were looking for troublemakers and McCarthy's name came up. Our colleague Jamie Yeager, who had worked on McCarthy's 1976 presidential campaign, made some representations to his former boss, who apparently liked the cut of our jib -- or he couldn't resist joining yet another lost cause. He contributed "The Caesarian Solution" to our premiere edition, and he continued providing monthly essays for the first two years of our publication, and occasional columns thereafter from his home in Woodville, Va. I never got to meet him again, but talked with him a few times by phone and he was very gracious, good-humored and supportive of our enterprise.

As a young man, McCarthy was a semipro baseball player who reportedly was a pretty fair hitter in the minor leagues. He tried the seminary but stuck with poetry, philosophy and politics. He probably wouldn't have made a very good president, truth to tell, but he was a hero and a contrarian who followed his conscience and never bowed to convention. As the classic campaign poster said, "He stood up alone and something happened." [Yeager offers an appreciation on page 21.]

Corporate media and political consultants nearly have wiped out senators such as McCarthy but some of his stripe may still occasionally be found. We must restore their habitat so that politicians such as Eugene McCarthy can thrive again. -- JMC

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2006

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