A Reprieve for Turkeys, but not for People

Published in: The Huffington Post

December 2, 2009

By David C. Fathi, director of the US Program, Human Rights Watch

The day before Thanksgiving, at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama officially “pardoned” two turkeys, sparing them from the chopping block and sending them to live out their days in Disneyland. This is one of those uniquely American traditions that must have our foreign friends scratching their heads. What can you say about a country where turkeys receive a presidential reprieve, while more than 3,000 human beings are awaiting death at the hands of the state?

Compare the White House turkeys’ experience to Romell Broom’s. On September 15 the state of Ohio tried to execute Broom by lethal injection-and failed. Prison staff struggled for more than two hours to find a vein for the needle that would deliver the deadly chemicals to stop his heart. They stuck him at least 18 times, painfully striking muscle and bone. At one point Broom covered his face with his hands and cried. Governor Ted Strickland finally ordered the execution postponed, and a federal appeals court later stayed another Ohio execution pending investigation of what it called the “disturbing issues” raised by this incident. But the state still wants to try again to kill Broom.

The United States is one of very few democracies to retain the death penalty. All of our closest allies-Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France-abolished it decades ago. And it’s not just a little-used provision in US law; last year, the United States was the world’s fourth-leading executioner, just behind the repressive governments of China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. There have been 48 executions in the United States so far this year, and nearly 1,200 since the start of the modern death penalty era in 1977.

The vast majority of the nearly 3,300 persons under sentence of death in the United States are on state death rows, so President Obama has no direct authority to commute their sentences. But he could use his office as a bully pulpit to urge states to abolish capital punishment, as New Jersey and New Mexico have done in the past two years. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. President Obama supports the death penalty, writing in his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope that some crimes call for “the ultimate punishment.” On the campaign trail in 2008 he went further, strongly denouncing a Supreme Court decision that invalidated the death penalty for rape and other non-homicide crimes.

Despite this disappointing lack of presidential leadership, there are signs of waning public support for the death penalty. The number of new death sentences imposed each year has fallen to about one-third the peak level of the mid-1990s. The exoneration of more than 130 death row prisoners since 1973 has created significant doubt about the reliability of the death penalty system. And at a time when yawning budget deficits are forcing deep cuts in basic government services, the enormous expense of capital punishment seems harder to justify. A 2008 study by a California state commission concluded that the state could save more than $120 million annually by abolishing the death penalty and replacing it with life in prison without possibility of parole.

It has taken many years for the world to turn its back on the death penalty, leaving the United States as one of the last holdouts. Here in the United States, progress has similarly been incremental, slow but steady. It won’t happen tomorrow, but with luck, we’ll eventually see the day when human beings receive as much mercy and compassion as White House turkeys.


One comment from an Alabama reader:

Although this article is about President Obama pardoning  two turkeys, I was really offended by Governor Riley’s pardoning of one turkey here in Alabama before Thanksgiving. In light of his having said when he took office that he would never commute a sentence, and in light of our State having executed 6 men this year, the act was obscene and disgusting.


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