This year has seen one scandal after another shake the “criminal justice” system in Illinois and its use of the death penalty in particular. The May 17 release of Ronald Jones marked the twelfth case where a death row inmate’s conviction has been overturned since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Cops beat Jones until he confessed to a 1989 rape and murder. His conviction was overturned only after DNA evidence proved his innocence.
The previous month saw the spectacular release of Anthony Porter after 16 years on death row for a double-murder he did not commit. Having come within 48 hours of execution in 1998 before he won a stay, Porter was only freed when university law students worked with the estranged wife of the real killer to trick him into confessing to the killing on videotape. Porter was originally convicted solely on the basis of the testimony of a witness who revealed later that cops had “threatened, harassed and intimidated” him into identifying Porter as the killer.
These cases followed the multi-million dollar settlement in 1998 of a lawsuit against the state of Illinois by four Black men wrongfully convicted of another murder.
Perhaps the most outrageous exposure of the role of police in framing death row inmates came in 1993, when Chicago police Lieutenant Jon Burge was fired from the department after it was revealed that he regularly tortured Black prisoners. Using various methods including beatings, suffocation, Russian Roulette and electrocution, Burge extracted numerous confessions—including those of ten Black men who remain on death row to this day!
Combined with recent cases of police brutality, the scandals exposing the corrupt, racist and anti-working class nature of the death penalty have set the ruling class and its pro-death penalty politicians back on their heels.
These scandals presented a great opportunity to launch a mass struggle against the death penalty and other injustices. But the labor, community and political leaders with the power to mobilize masses have refused to do so. Pro-capitalist union leaders remain content to ignore issues of racism and repression with the argument that they are not union issues, so their silence is not at all surprising.
Despite the lack of big demonstrations in response to these outrageous injustices, popular opinion nonetheless began to shift against the death penalty. Where public opinion polls routinely indicate over 75 percent support for the death penalty in Illinois, polls now show that support for the death penalty in principle has declined by over 10 percent; a majority now favor at least a temporary halt on executions while the system is investigated.
The scandals in Illinois are extreme examples that confirm the fundamentally racist, anti-working class nature of the death penalty (see below). Communists look to seize the momentum created by the recent scandals and join with broader forces to fight for the abolition of capitalism’s racist death penalty. As in the previous struggles against police brutality, communists explain that we must build a fighting mass movement—and that this necessarily means fighting ruling-class efforts to co-opt mass anger with toothless promises and empty panaceas.
The importance of this approach has already been confirmed, as an effort to co-opt the struggle has come from liberal Democratic party politicians. In the wake of Porter’s release, State Representatives Coy Pugh, Barbara Flynn-Currie and others introduced House Bill 723 calling for a twelve-month moratorium (a temporary halt) on the death penalty, during which time the House Judiciary Committee would form a commission “to study the laws and rules that establish and enforce the death penalty."
Considering the scandals of frame-ups and torture added to the regularly racist and anti-working class use of the death penalty, for liberals to talk only about a moratorium is grotesque. What would it take for them to oppose the death penalty—would they have to be framed and strapped to the electric chair themselves?
Any elected official sincerely committed to a defense of the oppressed would have immediately moved for abolition of the death penalty. But the politicians who sponsored House Bill 723 never conceived of the moratorium as even a step toward getting rid of the death penalty. Instead, it simply targeted possible “flaws in Illinois’ administration” of it. The bill’s lobbying packet states:
It does not call for an end to the death penalty. It does examine how racism, poverty and corruption of public officials have perverted the criminal justice system and lead to the condemnation of innocent people.
HB 723 does not make any moral assumptions regarding the death penalty. It does seek to protect the moral and ethical integrity of the State of Illinois by working to ensure a justice system which is impartial and uncorrupted.
HB 723 does not seek to repeal Illinois’ death penalty laws. It does seek to eliminate corruption and discrimination in the administration of justice, factors which undermine the very foundations upon which the United States was built.
With their moratorium bill, the liberal Democrats aimed to strengthen the death penalty by quelling popular anger with a temporary halt to executions. During the moratorium, they would perhaps weed out other cases that could stigmatize the cops and courts—and then declare the death penalty fair and call for a resumption of executions.
So it was not surprising that death penalty advocates like Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley came out in support of the moratorium bill. (In his past position as Cook County State’s Attorney, Daley had played a role in the frame-up of Anthony Porter.) Similarly, the normally pro-death penalty editorialists of Chicago’s main bourgeois newspapers jumped onto the moratorium bandwagon.
Any court ruling or legislation that slows down or temporarily halts executions is a victory in the struggle against the death penalty. But revolutionaries have the duty to expose the dangers of the moratorium bill and show how its sponsors planned to use it. The League for the Revolutionary Party warned anti-death penalty activists of the trap that the pro-moratorium politicians were preparing. This was no time to cheer on the politicians; it was necessary to expose them to step up the struggle to abolish the death penalty.
This approach stood in stark contrast to the ISO (International Socialist Organization), which through its Campaign to End the Death Penalty plays a central role in struggles against the death penalty. Even though the ISO in its theoretical journal has repeatedly emphasized the importance of not compromising with liberals, in practice the ISO/CEDP uncritically supported the bill, even distributing the rotten legislative lobbying packet quoted above in an effort to build support for it. The CEDP argued:
We are only at the beginning of the fight for a moratorium. Our success will be measured on how well activists link the fight for a moratorium to a movement towards abolition. (New Abolitionist, April 1999.)
Indeed, the ISO/CEDP can be judged in this way. The link between the moratorium and abolition was the efforts of politicians to use the moratorium to preserve the death penalty. One can comb the pages of the ISO’s Socialist Worker and the CEDP’s New Abolitionist and find no such warning.
Once talk of a moratorium quelled popular outrage, Pugh agreed to cut the moratorium from the original 12 months to just 6 months. This made a mockery of the bill’s pretension to obtain a thorough investigation of Illinois’ death penalty and its 162 outstanding cases. Once the furor over the Anthony Porter case died down further, the liberals allowed the legislation to be stalled in committee. As public attention to the issue dwindled, so did the politicians’ empty talk of a moratorium.
Thus the liberals’ promise of a moratorium helped the ruling class weather the storm of outrage against the frame-ups of death row prisoners; it has enabled them not only to prepare future executions but to free the state from paying for past injustices.
The opportunity presented by the recent scandals in Illinois to build a mass movement against the death penalty has been allowed to slip away. The politicians again have the upper hand. To show the way forward in the struggle, we think two main points are crucial.
In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” and outlawed it. This was not an act of moral leadership but one of many concessions the ruling class made to the mass struggles of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
With the decline of those struggles, this decision was reversed in 1976. As various states resumed executions, prosecutors sought popular support by first executing high-profile serial killers whom no one could sympathize with. But such executions hide the truth about the death penalty: it is the most blatantly racist and anti-working class aspect of the capitalist “justice” system.
Who gets the death penalty is hardly determined by the crime they are supposed to have committed. In the hands of judges, prosecutors, juries and lawyers, race and class overwhelmingly determine who is to be executed.
It is no coincidence that the vast majority of executions in the U.S. take place in the former slave-holding states of the Southern Confederacy—the death penalty is racist to the core. While Black people constitute 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 40 percent of death row prisoners. Including Latinos and others, people of color make up over half the death row population nation-wide.
The race of the victim is also crucial in determining which defendants get the death penalty. While half of all murder victims are Black, 85 percent of the murder victims in death penalty cases are white. Between 1976 and 1997, 84 Black defendants have been executed for killing a white person, but only 4 white defendants have been executed for killing a Black person. The death penalty shows clearly an overall truth about racist America: white lives are set a higher value than the lives of Black people.
Indeed the U.S. Supreme Court has admitted that the death penalty is racist. In its findings on the last major court case to take up the question, McCleskey v. Kemp in 1987 the court stated:
This evidence of racism is overwhelming, it’s not refuted, but what are we supposed to do, declare the whole system unconstitutional?
If over 50 percent of those executed are people of color, 99.9 percent are poor. Often targeted as presumed criminals anyway, poor people charged with murder can rarely afford competent defense lawyers and usually have to use court-appointed lawyers who are most often incompetent and disinterested. For example, the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy reported:
One-fourth of those under the sentence of death in Kentucky were represented at trial by attorneys who since had been disbarred or had resigned rather than face disbarment. (Richard Dieter, With Justice for Few.)
As former Florida death row inmate John Spenkelink said, “Them without the capital gets the punishment."
And those with capital generally don’t. Leave aside the fact that the world’s biggest international terrorist, the U.S. government, is never charged with war crimes. And leave aside that capitalists are never charged with murder when they knowingly market products that kill or cause thousands of deaths via environmental pollution. Individual capitalists who murder directly do well also. Take, for example, the case of John du Pont, heir to the du Pont family fortune, who shot a man to death in 1996. Hiring the best defense lawyers money could buy and exploiting the judge’s feelings of ruling class solidarity, du Pont not only dodged the death penalty but even escaped jail; he was assigned to a low-security psychiatric institution for a handful of years.
Not surprisingly, the death penalty has been a key to the ruling class’s racist “war on crime,” and no politician has done more to push the death penalty than President Clinton. Clinton’s 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill and 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, both passed overwhelmingly by Democrats and Republicans, greatly expanded the scope of the death penalty and severely limited the legal rights of defendants. The crime bill expands the number of federal crimes punishable by the death sentence from two to fifty-eight. The 1996 bill placed strict limits on death-row appeals. Under the new law, death row prisoners are limited to one habeas corpus appeal, which must be made within six months of sentencing—after that new evidence is inadmissible.
This only compounds the problem faced by defendants in state courts, most of which have strict time limits on presenting new evidence. In Texas, for example, defendants must present new evidence of their innocence within thirty days of conviction in order to be considered by the courts on appeal. And the federal courts will not be squeamish in rejecting the appeals of death row prisoners they know are innocent. For example, Texas death row inmate Leonel Herrera tried to introduce the fact that his brother had confessed to the crime he was condemned for. Yet the Supreme Court ruled that “actual innocence” was not “relevant” in Herrera’s case, since he had filed past the thirty-day deadline. Herrera was executed in 1993.
In the hands of the capitalist ruling class, the “criminal justice system” victimizes and represses workers and poor, and it targets people of color for the worst injustices. The struggle against the death penalty is crucial not only for winning justice for its intended victims, but also for undermining the capitalists’ state power and exposing its image of fairness.
In this struggle, workers can afford neither reformist illusions about moderating the violence of the capitalist state, nor “moral” pacifist sentiments that the death penalty and other forms of violence are wrong in general and at all times. The capitalists will not allow the working class to overthrow them without the most bitter struggle against the cops and military that shield their oppression and exploitation. The working class will be forced to defend itself and seize power by force of arms.
Following the workers’ revolution, armed force—including the use of the death penalty—will be needed to defend the workers’ state against counterrevolutionaries. But in the hands of a workers’ state, such weapons of repression will be used in the interests of the vast majority of the exploited and oppressed, against the rich and powerful minority who want to return them to slavery. Only through such means will it be possible to build a new world of freedom, cleansed of all forms of violence.