|DEATH PENALTY DEBATE|
June 11, 2001
Timothy McVeigh's execution sparks renewed debate on the ethics of the death penalty.
JIM LEHRER: And now, the various meanings of Timothy McVeigh's death, as seen by two death penalty proponents: Lee Solomon, Camden county prosecutor in New Jersey; he is a member of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys' Association, and Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit organization.
And two opponents: Austin Sarat, professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst University. He's written a book called "When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition." And Diann Rust-Tierney, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. Plus, pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. First Andy Kohut, what did the polls reflect about whether executing Timothy McVeigh was the will of the American people?
|The will of the American people|
ANDREW KOHUT: It certainly was, Jim. Almost all of the polls show a super majority of support for executing McVeigh. Our poll in April found 75 percent favoring, 18 percent opposing. Every subsequent poll has found very little change in this. Even with the missing FBI files surfacing and questions about a delay and a stay, the public has held fast that this guy was a stone-cold killer who was remorseless and they were not ready to show him any mercy. There was a CBS poll conducted over the weekend which found 77 percent agreeing with the judge's decision to not stay the execution, and in the end 81 percent in that poll said that the American justice system has worked well in this case. There are no regrets for the most part in America.
JIM LEHRER: Were you able to read the polls in terms of people who were previously opposed to capital punishment but in this case were willing to make an exception?
ANDREW KOHUT: The Gallup poll found 23 perception of people saying, like Mr. Rody, I generally oppose capital punishment but in this case I'm going to make an exception.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, Ms. Rust-Tierney, did the American people get justice today?
DIANN RUST-TIERNEY: Well I think if we are asking ourselves whether or not we know anymore about domestic terrorism, whether we know how to prevent these things, I think the answer is no. I think, however, when it comes to the public better understanding how the death penalty works and the fact that it is a reality in the United States, I think, yes. I think we're going to see as a result of the focus on this case a better understanding of the problems of the death penalty because now the public has a framework, a context in which to talk about it.
JIM LEHRER: But did Timothy McVeigh deserve to die for what he did?
DIANN RUST-TIERNEY: Well, obviously we oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. So we don't believe that this case in that regard is any different. But I think the thing about this case that people need to understand is that it sets a standard. It says for sure that we do have a death penalty and we have to look at how we apply it.
JIM LEHRER: We'll come back to that in a moment. Mr. Solomon, how do you feel about whether or not the American people, if Andy Kohut's and all the other polls are correct, they wanted this man to die -- was this justice that was committed today?
LEE SOLOMON: I think clearly the American people sensed that justice was served. It's important for all of us in every case to have a good sense that the person is clearly guilty, that it's an appropriate result. It's a particularly horrible crime that everybody's rights and protections have been afforded them. And in this case I think the American public has correctly come to the conclusion that that has happened here. They've spoken, and I frankly agree with them in this case, and several other cases.
|Was justice done today?|
JIM LEHRER: Professor Sarat, where do you come down on whether or not justice was done today?
AUSTIN SARAT: Jim, I think the question of justice that you've posed is in a sense an abstract one. Maybe in some abstract sense Timothy McVeigh deserved to die. But what's interesting is that McVeigh tells us very little about the system of state killing in the United States. McVeigh had very good lawyers. He had super due process, while there were mistakes made by the FBI, what happened in the McVeigh case is really exceptional.
What the American people are increasingly beginning to focus on is the system of state killing in the United States as its practiced day to day. McVeigh is the exception to every rule. The best predictors of whether or not a murderer will be executed in the United States are where the murder is committed, the race of the murderer and his victim, and the wealth of the murderer. So that the issues that we really need to focus on are whether or not the system of state killing, whether in the McVeigh case or in any other case in the United States, makes us a safer society, a saner society or a society that's any closer to realizing its ideals.
JIM LEHRER: I'll make you a deal; we're going to get to that in a moment. But what I asked you was whether or not taking Timothy McVeigh's life today was in fact justice, whether this was a proper exception?
AUSTIN SARAT: I don't think so. I don't think that taking McVeigh's life in this case makes our society more just. I sympathize with the desires of the victims. I can hardly imagine their grief and their suffering. But the test in a society like our own is always how do we respond to evil without doing evil ourselves? Killing a killer makes us all killers.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rushford, do you agree-- killing a killer makes us all killers?
MICHAEL RUSHFORD: No, I don't. I have trouble equating the life of Timothy McVeigh with his innocent victims. I think that allowing him to survive and continue to preach what he believes in and live out his days would have been to devalue every innocent life in this country and particularly those of the victims.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rushford, then how does killing another person... How do you justify killing another person for having killed somebody else? In other words, you know what the basic argument is. How do you answer that?
MICHAEL RUSHFORD: I think the value of human life is based on the price you pay for taking it. I think Timothy McVeigh stepped away from being a member of civilized human society when he chose to commit this crime. To allow him to continue to live his life and write his memoirs and enjoy food and any of the other things we witnessed a couple years ago with Richard Spec in prison would have been to... A real slap in the face to all the victims and all the people that loved them.
|Abstract versus reality|
JIM LEHRER: A slap in the face, Ms. Rust-Tierney?
DIANN RUST-TIERNEY: I have an observation that I wanted to make. I think that the focus on this case has made the death penalty a reality. For a long time the public supported the death penalty in the abstract. When given the opportunity to look at a particular case they can say, 'Yes, in this case we think it's appropriate,' but in other cases the public is beginning to see maybe it isn't appropriate or maybe it isn't fair. And so I think that one of the things we ought to be looking at is whether or not we have a fair system.
Ironically, right after McVeigh's execution we have another person scheduled to be executed by the name of Juan Raul Garza where there are lots of questions about fairness in his case. We talked about race being a factor, ethnicity being a factor. The federal death penalty as it currently works isn't fair. That's the source of the discussion. So I think McVeigh's case is important because we're seeing that it's real. Now we have to see whether our reality about the death penalty matches our other values about fairness and it just doesn't.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Solomon, what do you think about that?
LEE SOLOMON: I think in every case we have to make certain judgments as to whether the punishment of death is appropriate and just. We have to consider a variety of factors, and we do need to look behind the facts of the specific case to determine whether the punishment is being meted out fairly and justly. My jurisdiction happens to be in the state of New Jersey. We undergo something called proportionality review, which takes a look at how it's being applied. I think that's a necessary function of government, to make sure it's done fairly in the appropriate cases with the appropriate aggravating factors. Frankly in New Jersey where we've been undergoing proportionality review for many, many years it's been found repeatedly to be appropriately applied and fairly applied. The one thing we don't do and we're not doing tonight is the debate on the death penalty has a silent participant, and that's the victims. The thing we never discuss is the color, race, ethnicity, sex of the victims and what's happened to them. The one thing I can tell you in my jurisdiction is that the victims of murders are disproportionately people of color. I think they need to have a voice. Frankly prosecutors are the voice through which they speak. I really do think that does not get appropriate attention.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Sarat, what's your view of that, that the victims don't get enough attention in these matters? You heard what Mr. Solomon just said.
AUSTIN SARAT: State killing isn't a private matter. It isn't a transaction between the state and any group of people. We can empathize, we can be concerned for the victims of crime, we can't walk in their shoes. We can walk with them as we try to think, how can we respond to these horrible acts in a way that builds a better society? It isn't clear to me that capital punishment helps to build a better society. It's certainly clear to me that capital punishment doesn't deter. It doesn't make us a safer society. It doesn't teach the kinds of lessons. It doesn't lift the spirit of the country.
JIM LEHRER: So Timothy McVeigh died in the name of all of us, not in the name of the victims or their survivors in Oklahoma City today?
AUSTIN SARAT: We're all responsible for the taking of McVeigh's life. The death penalty in a democratic society is the act of all of our citizens. And again, I think special solicitude is owed to the victims, especially the victims of a horrible crime like McVeigh's. But that solicitude doesn't mean that they should have a special role in dictating how and the way we respond to acts like McVeigh's.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rushford, do you disagree?
MICHAEL RUSHFORD: Yes I do but I do think 78 percent of the public did agree to accept responsibility for the execution of Timothy McVeigh, but in another sense I think that we all suffer when justice is not done in a case like this. All of us that obey the rules, are participants in society, suffer. I think we need to bear that in mind. But at least here in California, the victim's family does get to make a statement in the murder cases, the capital cases. And I think it's a meaningful thing. I think we need to have, as the professor says, a special solicitude for the victim but also see that justice is done for the victim. I think that's very important to hold our society today.
|Waning support for the death penalty?|
JIM LEHRER: Andy Kohut, the McVeigh case aside now, what do the polls show about the state of the American mind on capital punishment generally?
ANDREW KOHUT: The irony is that support for the death penalty is declining. It's one of the few liberal social trends of our time. Our poll in March, there's a graphic there that showed only 66 percent favoring the death penalty in general.
JIM LEHRER: That was not in a McVeigh context or anything? Just a straight question.
ANDREW KOHUT: The Gallup Poll has been asking this question since time immemorial. It was as high as 80 percent in 1994. All of the polls find this slide in the late 90s from the 80 percent level to the two-thirds level, about what it was back about... Back in the 1950s but still much higher than in the liberal 1960s when only 40 percent favored the death penalty. The death penalty reached a peak as the country became more conservative, as the crime rate went up.But over the past five years we've seen a slide in that.
And the question right now should be, will this exception prove the rule for many people? Many people say, well, as Mr. Rody was saying, perhaps we should have this alternative. But we haven't seen any movement in -- over the past few months in this general measure. People are looking at how they feel about the death penalty in one way and in a general sense and how they feel about McVeigh in quite a different way.
JIM LEHRER: And of course the question then will have to be tracked is, will this increase people's desire to use the death penalty by all the details that they have just gone through, even like we just went through here on this program? Or will it decrease the interest?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well there are so many things that are breaking in the direction of opposition to the death penalty or, let's say, lower support. There's rising moral concern on the part of conservative people. Catholics and even white Evangelical Protestants. People have concerns about the fairness and what the DNA evidence has revealed about potential mistakes. And there is even fewer people in these polls saying that deterrence, the deterrence factor, which is the biggest justification that makes the most sense to people, fewer people are saying that makes sense to them or that really is the case -- that capital punishment discourages murders.
JIM LEHRER: You said earlier and I assume just explain a little further how you believe that the McVeigh case could, in fact, weaken support for the death penalty.
DIANN RUST-TIERNEY: Well, I think a couple things. For a long time the death penalty has been an abstraction. The public sort of supports it but didn't really know how it worked. Now they see that it's a reality and they also see it's like every other institution, one we have to look at and see is this broken? Do we need to fix it? The fact that this is now real focuses the public's attention on the other values that come with our other institutions. Is this fair? I think that's why we're seeing the drop in support because we're beginning to see it's not fair. It depends on who your lawyer is and whether you can afford a good lawyer, and it depends on race.
Just a comment about the issue about victims, victims are very much an issue when it comes to the death penalty. Ironically not all victims treated equally. The death penalty is used overwhelmingly when the victim is white and not so much when the victim is African-American or Latino or Asian and so these issues are coming out. There's also no unanimity about victims about whether they support the death penalty. One of the things that came out during this discussion around McVeigh was the number of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing who themselves said this isn't right for me.
JIM LEHRER: We had one on our Betty Ann Bowser's tape. Mr. Solomon, what do you think is going to happen? What do the think the impact of the McVeigh case is going to be on this issue? Nationally?
LEE SOLOMON: I think over time it will have very little if any impact. I think people's views... There's a segment of the population that is swayed by what they see on TV, what they hear, the kinds of stories that come over the airwaves as to whether a particular case is just or unjust and frankly the approach that the media takes to those stories.
Most people have firmly held convictions for and against it. Those numbers probably won't waiver substantially. They appear to be substantially in favor of the death penalty in the appropriate cases. I don't expect that to change. But I do think those numbers are affected by the way that information is disseminated to the public and what information, in fact, is disseminated to them.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think the information is getting out properly at at this moment. That's why the support is going down?
LEE SOLOMON: I couldn't say proper or improper. Just that the numbers of stories and the types of stories that tend to be going out are those attacking either the justice of, the appropriateness of, guilt and innocence issues. I know that in New Jersey a number of cases have been cited for the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the death penalty.
In most cases that I'm aware of where the verdict or judgment of death was overturned, certainly they've been retried. They're either on Death Row or in prison for life. But I think the way that those stories are approached and those cases are approached does affect the public's perception about the death penalty.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Sarat, what do you think will happen if anything on this issue as a result of McVeigh dying today?
AUSTIN SARAT: I think McVeigh's execution will have little effect. I think we're in an incredibly interesting, important period in our consideration of the death penalty. I think that the consideration of the death penalty as was said a moment ago is no longer abstract. It's very concrete. Whereas ten years ago or 20 years ago to be opposed to the death penalty was to be somehow outside of the American mainstream, now today in the United States people who oppose the death penalty can oppose the death penalty in the name of American values, equal protection, due process of law, fairness, protection of the innocent.
Those values give Americans a place to stand to say whatever my abstract and general views are about capital punishment, I care about equality. I care about fairness. When the hierarchy of the Catholic Church comes out opposed to the death penalty -- a long-time supporter of capital punishment, comes out in favor of a moratorium, when the legislature of the state of New Hampshire votes to abolish the death penalty in that state, I think we're seeing real changes. I don't think those changes are going to be distracted or derailed by McVeigh.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Rushford, what do you think?
MICHAEL RUSHFORD: Well, I think the opposite is also possible. I think the country saw a process move forward in a terrible situation for the crime. And they saw justice done. I think you had as many confirmations of that in your report today as you've had for the other possibility that maybe support is waning. I do agree with the district attorney that the way that this capital punishment debate has been reported in the press focuses on some often very counterfeit studies that have been presented and presented by opponents of the death penalty that are not accurate, that have been disproved.
I've yet to hear anyone say that the Emory University study that came out last year proved that for each murderer that is executed eighteen murders are prevented seems to prove that for deterrence is part of the death penalty team debate. So maybe we ought to be reinvigorating our review of that as well.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of this debate I know we've only scratched the surface but we have to leave it there. Thank you all very much.