Death Penalty Be Not Proud

Perhaps the most heinous racially motivated crime of this decade, William King's murder of James Byrd Jr., has evoked extensive coverage and appropriate outrage throughout much of the nation. Many advocates of racial justice are pleased that King will receive the harshest penalty Texas law allows, death by lethal injection.

I am disturbed that with all the attention devoted to the brutality of this crime, so few defenders of civil rights and social justice are challenging King's planned execution. Jesse Jackson has renewed his opposition to the death penalty even in this case. Nonetheless, others regularly opposed to capital punishment have been silent.

I consider the decision by Texas authorities late last month to invoke and enforce capital punishment even in this brutal murder to be itself an act of vengeance. King is a terrifying figure, and one who did make repellent choices. Nonetheless, his execution will hardly "send a signal'' to racists or help eradicate racism.

Each of us makes choices, but we do so within very different worlds and life circumstances. We should not excuse William King, but neither should we regard him a born racist and murderer. To treat him as innately and irreversibly pathological is itself a form of thought uncomfortably close to racism. Many rural and urban backwaters of this nation have left behind a substantial number of citizens with very limited educational and economic opportunities. King's life has perhaps not been the most unsavory, but lives like his often lead to an anger and bitterness just waiting to explode in mindless violence. An unemployed drifter who probably suffered from a substance abuse problem, he had spent time in prison. Understanding the choices King made and the context in which others like him act is a necessary component of any adequate response to racist violence. In their treatment of this issue, the media have failed to explore his prison experience or the broader impact of our criminal justice system on its growing population.

The criminal justice system itself plays a major role in perpetuating violence in this society. Eric Schlosser reports in the December 1998 issue of the Atlantic that U. S. prisons today house "the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, drug dealers, drug addicts, alcoholics, and a wide assortment of sociopaths. A generation ago, many such people were handled by the mental health system." The number of drug treatment slots in American prisons has declined by more than half since 1993 even as prisons have become our greatest growth industry.

The prosecution ridiculed King's argument that racist tattoos on his body were a form of protection in the race gang dominated culture of his prison. Yet even here, evidence from all over the country suggests that such a claim must be taken seriously. The assistant DA of San Francisco, himself a former prisoner, confirmed in a recent NPR interview that tattoos like King's were often part of the gang identification needed to survive in the violent and racially polarized climate of our prisons.

The prison system sustains the very racism King's act expressed and his execution is supposed to redress. Although the prevalence of drug use among whites is roughly equal to that among blacks, African Americans are five times as likely to be arrested for drug offenses. Not only are most inmates denied drug treatment, few also receive any occupational counseling or education. Seventy percent of the prison population is illiterate. Embittered at racial injustice, and with few realistic prospects even on their release, gang violence directed at guards or other inmates both expresses and further fuels racism.

The prosecution also argued that capital punishment was appropriate for King because he might kill again even while in prison. Here again, the larger issue ought to be the general level of violence tolerated in our prisons. The overcrowding and understaffing prevalent in most U. S. prisons allows violence among prisoners to become endemic. Guards themselves, who live in constant fear, often participate in and encourage such violence.

The very rapid growth in our prisons has exacerbated their pathological impact. The obscene cost of incarcerating citizens, many simply for drug possession, has led many states to slash funding for other segments of the criminal justice system, including probation and parole officers, and rehabilitation and education services. Schlosser characterizes California's prison system as " a revolving door for poor, highly dysfunctional, and often illiterate drug users." Such language would apply increasingly to prison systems throughout the nation. Even in my home state of Maine, where rates of incarceration thankfully lag behind national norms, the youth correctional facility in Portland has recently been faulted by an out of state consultant for its negligent and often overly harsh treatment of offenders. Its "graduates" will be more prepared for a life of crime than for productive work.

William King was properly tried and convicted of a brutal murder. Satisfying as the subsequent imposition of the death penalty may be to many, it leaves unexplored the role our prisons, drug policies, and our treatment of the poor and the mentally ill has played in such tragedies. These practices all help foster the very kind of demonic personality then used to defend harsher laws and more incarceration. There is an unindicted co-conspirator in this case. Capital punishment allows that conspirator both to go free and to murder again.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. He is co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Sustainable Democracy: Individuality and the Politics of the Environment (Sage). He invites comments via e mail at:

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