Ghoulishness on death penalty

Politicians love to identify with popular issues. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich not only recognizes this but constantly urges fellow Republicans to remember that “if you can be seen smiling while standing next to an issue with which 80 percent of the public agrees, you are better off than you would be if they catch you next to an issue that only has 20 percent support.”

Politicians love to identify with popular issues. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich not only recognizes this but constantly urges fellow Republicans to remember that “if you can be seen smiling while standing next to an issue with which 80 percent of the public agrees, you are better off than you would be if they catch you next to an issue that only has 20 percent support.”

It’s hard to argue with Gingrich’s logic. Politicians of both parties pride themselves on either finding such issues with which to identify or coming up with ways to “spin” their positions on less popular issues so as to convince voters that, while their position may be nuanced, it is really the same as theirs.

A candidate or party that consistently ignores Gingrich’s advice can quickly find itself in real trouble at the polls. It’s why politicians and their managers spend millions on “market research” or polling to test and “tweak” what they are offering voters.

The problem with relying exclusively on such market-driven research is that it is easy to forget other factors, such as one’s principles, judgment and the hard-to-discern reality that people actually expect more from politicians than from the manufacturers of breakfast cereal.

It’s also possible to misread the research. That happens all the time, but perhaps most starkly in a New York gubernatorial race back in the days when that old liberal Mario Cuomo was in Albany. Cuomo was a vociferous opponent of the death penalty and stood proudly with his 20 percent issue. Ecstatic Republicans made the death penalty the central focus of their campaign, and their candidate could be found morning, noon and night standing there smiling next to his 80 percent issue.

It didn’t work that year because they had misread the data. The voters did indeed support the death penalty, but they weren’t all that comfortable with a candidate who came to be perceived as almost joyfully looking forward to executing people. They saw the death penalty as justifiable and even necessary, but not as something to be relished. Cuomo’s liberalism would eventually do him in, but not on that issue.

This dated but apt example leaps to mind as one contemplates what has come to be known as the Streamlined Procedures Act, which is working its way through the House and Senate as a means of keeping convicted murderers from delaying their executions by constant appeals to the federal courts. There is no question that there have been instances of prolonged and spurious attempts by those scheduled to meet their maker and the attorneys they employ to buy them a little time before they are hanged, electrocuted, gassed or injected with whatever the bureaucrats use to kill them.

However, many of these abuses were eliminated or at least minimized by reforms adopted some years ago and, as a result, dozens of judicial organizations, judges and prosecutors have formed a loose coalition opposing this new “reform.” They see it as unneeded and potentially self-defeating, in that it would deny the ability of federal courts to review many state cases even where there might be evidence of what they like to call “actual innocence.”

Those who support the death penalty — and I count myself among them — do or should recognize that it is the most extreme penalty that a society can visit upon a wrongdoer.

Most of those on death row are guilty, but it turns out that not all are. In the last quarter-century, more than 100 men sitting on death row have been released because of reviews that have found them innocent. During the same period, nearly two dozen more have been executed for crimes it was subsequently discovered they did not commit.

Now, in the name of speeding things up and avoiding delays, Congress is considering “reforms” that would have sent many of these people to their deaths. I don’t know about the authors of this legislation, but I wouldn’t want the blood of one innocent man or woman on my hands.

In trying to appear tough on crime and thus play to the polls, members of Congress, like that long-ago gubernatorial candidate, are making the mistake of looking as if they’re more interested in the killing than the justice.

Consider the cases of Ronald Keith Williamson of Oklahoma and Nicholas Yarris of Pennsylvania. Between them, these men spent 32 years on death row. That sort of delay is exactly what the authors of the Streamlined Procedures Act want to eliminate. The only problem was that neither man was guilty. Both were proved innocent by federal courts that forced the two states to review the evidence and do DNA tests unavailable at the time of their convictions.

Under the Streamlined Procedures Act, neither man would have been set free, but they wouldn’t still be rotting in a cell. They’d be dead, and the Congress would call it justice.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).