Carolyn Ballard: Executions in a Civilized Society?


Jan Slakov

Dear RN,

Carolyn Ballard and I became friends thanks to the cyberjournal. Like
Richard and I, Carolyn has always felt "American dream" was something of a
nightmare. She brings a fresh perspective to our thinking, with her southern
(South Carolina) roots and Christian beliefs.

I am actually sending two of her articles below. The first is a personal
reflection piece, the second a feature article. Besides bringing a moving
perspective on the topic, the second article is also a tough indictment of
US support for the executions. If you are looking for facts, figures and
footnotes, it's the second article you will want.

all the best, Jan
From: "Carolyn Ballard" <•••@••.•••>
To: "Jan Slakov" <•••@••.•••>
Date: Wed, 22 Jan 1997 23:12:15 -0800

@ Odds - article by Carolyn Ballard, South Carolina

Like most teenagers, I had a best friend with whom I spent almost all my
spare time. We were like sisters and consequently, each became a virtual
adopted member of the other's family. I loved her family like they were my
own, but I was especially fond of her father. He was a working-class man -
tall in stature, hard-working, soft-spoken, honorable, God-fearing and wise
beyond his limited education. I respected this man and frequently sought him
out, whenever I had a deep or thorny issue I wanted to discuss. He always
had time for me and neither disparaged my opinions nor discouraged my
questioning. So it was that one evening we began to talk about an issue that
troubled me greatly: capital punishment.

What disturbed me most about capital punishment was that it did not square
with my understanding of biblical principles. It was perfectly at home,
however, with the "hellfire and brimstone" dogma of the Baptist faith of my
upbringing, but I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and disillusioned
with that as well. Since my friend's family were Methodists, I thought
perhaps they had been taught a more rational, godly view on this penal policy.

"How can we," I asked, " justify the death penalty when redemption and
forgiveness are at the heart of Christianity?"

Though the details of the debate that followed are forever shrouded by the
mists of time, I will never forget how taken aback and painfully confused I
was, when this good man began justifying the death penalty from a Christian
perspective. To this day, I can still see him sitting there, well-worn bible
in his lap, patiently pointing out to me chapters and verses. However, I
left that night with the distinct feeling that my friend's father wasn't
completely comfortable with his own arguments and the biblical "evidence."

That conversation took place in the late 60's, when the death penalty was
popularly accepted as a fitting punishment for some of the worst criminal
offenses, which included first-degree arson, first-degree burglary,
first-degree rape and first-degree murder. Over the years I would return
again and again to this question in my own mind. In time and after much
study and thought, I became firmly convinced that capital punishment is
horribly wrong by any standard we use to measure it, but particularly by
Christian standards. Jesus' denunciation of the death penalty was clear,
when he said to the would-be executioners of the adulterous woman: "You who
are without sin, cast the first stone." 

So why could this good Christian man not see the same obvious lesson of
scripture? Why could he not make the connections or see the glaring
disconnections? I believe that the powerful social forces of Conventional
Wisdom and Voice of Authority that have eroded our ability to think
critically were responsible for blinding him to the truth.

Conventional wisdom is the by-product of conformity. It is the defense
mechanism we've developed - a sort of mass denial - that prevents us from
having to critically examine the American system, even when the system
exhibits some very serious and dangerous flaws. We not only want to believe
that ours is the only system that works but we have to believe, because the
system defines who we are. Thus, conformity ensures the preservation of the
system, our way of life and our own self-image. Culturally speaking,
critical thought is threatening. 

It is not surprising then that an intricate web of public and private
institutions indoctrinates us in the joys and rewards of conformity - public
education, the military, TV, government, the media, big business, and so
forth. Tightening the stranglehold of conformist thinking even further are
the leaders of these systems - the voices of authority who spout
conventional wisdom. As a result, we miss the logic of our failures, just as
my friend's father did over 40 years ago, because we either cannot or will
not think critically and objectively about our system and its policies. 

The death penalty is one of the system's most egregious failures. When we
condemn murder by the individual and condone murder by the state, we
perpetuate a cycle of violence that brutalizes society. And if "an eye for
an eye" is seen as the measure of justice, if revenge is the path to healing
and "closure," how blind and deluded have we become?

From: "Carolyn Ballard" <•••@••.•••>
To: "Jan Slakov" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: feature article
Date: Wed, 22 Jan 1997 23:14:06 -0800


When asked once what he thought of Western civilization, the Indian
spiritual and political leader, Mohandas Gandhi, quipped: "I think it would
be a good idea." Many Americans would probably find that a puzzling and
incongruous response. But Rubin "Hurricane" Carter doesn't happen to be
among them. 

Carter gave the keynote speech, provocatively entitled "Executions in a
Civilized Society," last month for the Conference on Crime and Punishment at
the Great Aunt Stella Center in Charlotte. Sponsored by Mecklenburg
Ministries, the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers, the American Bar
Association Capital Project, the Charlotte Post, Borders Books and Music and
the Great Aunt Stella Center, the two-day public conference took an in-depth
look at the death penalty in work shops and panel discussions and featured
Carter in the opening night public presentation Jan. 7.

Carter is the former professional boxer who, in 1966, was charged and later
convicted for the murder of three white men in a New Jersey bar. He was
sentenced to three life terms, narrowly escaping the death penalty.
Vigorously maintaining his innocence from the outset, Carter was freed after
serving almost 20 years, when he was able to get an independent judge to
review his case under the writ of habeas corpus. His story, immortalized in
the 1975 Bob Dylan hit, "Hurricane," has recently come to the big screen to
critical acclaim in the Norman Jewison film, "The Hurricane," starring
Denzel Washington as Carter.

"Executions in a civilized society . that's an oxymoron, is it not?" Carter
asked the sold-out audience. "How can there be executions - the destruction
of human life - in a civilized society? Any society anywhere . that still
insists upon retaining the anachronism of the death penalty is not a
civilized society."

Indeed, the U.S. has the distinction of being the only country among
developed nations to retain the death penalty. In the last decade, 106
countries have abolished the death penalty either by law or in practice.
According to Amnesty International, four countries account for 86 percent of
all executions worldwide: China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran and
the United States. Iraq is reported to have carried out hundreds of
executions which could not be confirmed by the agency.

As the number of nations abolishing the death penalty continues to grow, the
global community is watching the United States' escalating executions and
hardened stance on capital punishment with increasing disapproval.

"People who live outside of the United States see those who live inside the
United States quite differently than you see yourselves," Carter explained.
"Right now, you have death camps spread out all over this country. This
country, which considers itself the leader of the free world, is the only
Western industrialized nation which insists upon retaining the anachronism
of the death penalty."

The costs of U.S. intransigence on the death penalty are substantial in both
economic and non-material terms. European Parliament official Alan Donnelly
warned of possible economic consequences for the U.S. in a letter to Texas
Governor George Bush in 1998: "Many companies, under pressure from
shareholders and public opinion to apply ethical business practices, are
beginning to consider the possibility of restricting the investment in the
U.S. to states that do not apply the death penalty" (Catholics Against
Capital Punishment News Notes, July 20, 1998).

Perhaps the greatest cost of this issue for the U.S. is its increasing
isolation within the international community. As the nation which continues
to preach human rights and respect for human life to the rest of the world,
we are perceived as having a double standard when it comes to the death
penalty. In so doing, the U.S. undermines its leadership and integrity in
the eyes of the world's nations. 

While respected world leaders that include Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II
and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson have called for an
end to the death penalty, the U.S. continues to disregard their appeals.
Further distancing itself from growing international consensus on capital
punishment, the U.S. has either failed to sign or comply with international
treaties that protect the rights of the most vulnerable in cases of capital

"There are only two countries on this planet who refused to sign the
Optional Protocol of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights for
Children," Carter remarked. "The two countries were Sudan, which virtually
has no government, and the United States, which has over 300 children on
death row waiting to be executed."

In the 1988 Supreme Court decision of Thompson v. Oklahoma, the court held
that it was unconstitutional to execute juveniles age 15 and younger at the
time of the crime, thereby leaving the door open for states to execute
juveniles age 16 -18. Of the 38 states that allow the death penalty, 16 have
set age 18 as the minimum age at the time of the crime, five have chosen age
17 as their minimum (includes North Carolina), while the remaining 18 states
use the minimum of 16 as the age limit (includes South Carolina). According
to Amnesty International, six countries since 1990 are known to have
executed prisoners who were under age 18 at the time of the crime: Iran,
Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United States. Of those six,
the U.S. carried out the greatest number of known executions of child
offenders (10). Not surprisingly then, 26 (includes both North and South
Carolina) of the 38 states that allow the death penalty also allow the
execution of adults that have the IQ of a child -- the mentally retarded. 

Increasingly, the fight against crime in this country has taken on the
language of war. And as has too often been the case in war, the casualties
are not always reflected in body counts. The constitutional protections from
oppression that our ancestors fought to ensure are frequently compromised in
the name of war. Xenophobic fear of the large German immigrant population
prompted Congress during World War I to pass the U.S. Sedition Act in 1918
prohibiting disloyal or abusive speech against the government or flag,
violating the First Amendment's protection of free speech. Violations of the
Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure are
well documented in the ongoing "war on drugs." And in the war on crime --
particularly violent offenses - the right of the wrongfully convicted to
have an independent federal court review under the writ of habeas corpus was
all but denied when President Clinton signed the 1996 Effective Death
Penalty Act. It was, in fact, the writ of habeas corpus that saved Carter
from a life in prison and many other innocent men from death.

"The writ of habeas corpus, the one single check on abuses at the state
court level, the one life-affirming jewel in the crown of thorns we know as
the criminal justice system, is being threatened with extinction," Carter
told his audience. "It is the concrete right of every man, woman and child
in this country to be free from arbitrary, capricious, unjust,
unconstitutional judgement, confinement or execution."

The abuses, incompetence, flagrant constitutional violations, corruption and
racism within our criminal justice system are, in fact, widespread. Though
the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to counsel, the courts have
affirmed that it does not guarantee the right to competent counsel. In
capital cases, the defendants are predominantly poor and are represented by
court-appointed attorneys who are most often paid less than minimum wage. It
is not unusual to find cases where individuals who are fighting for their
very lives being represented by attorneys who are so incompetent that they
have later been disbarred. In the city of Houston, Texas, which alone
executes more prisoners than most states, at least three men were sentenced
to death while their attorney dozed beside them. And in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, a study by the Philadelphia Inquirer revealed that poor
defendants were being represented by "ward leaders, ward committeemen,
failed politicians, sons of judges, party leaders and those who contribute
to the judge's election campaign."

As Carter explained, "all wrongful convictions are the result of jailhouse
stool pigeons, jury tampering, jury fixing, paid criminals for perjured
testimonies, the manufacturing of evidence by police departments and lies in
the seat of government itself."

In Carter's case, his conviction was the result of perjured testimony by two
white men caught robbing a nearby factory who, when promised their freedom
and a reward by the New Jersey police, gave false testimony which implicated

As a result of these abuses, the risk of executing the innocent is high, but
it is a risk that many death penalty supporters find acceptable. To date, 85
men on death row have been found innocent of their crimes and released.

As bad as these injustices are, there is one injustice that is so endemic in
the criminal justice system and capital punishment cases in particular, that
Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was prompted to remark in 1990:
"When in Gregg v. Georgia the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval to
capital punishment, this endorsement was premised on the promise that
capital punishment would be administered with fairness and justice. Instead,
the promise has become a cruel and empty mockery. If not remedied, the
scandalous state of our present system of capital punishment will cast a
pall of shame over our society for years to come." 

Carter described it in even harsher terms as "an American holocaust." It is
the injustice of racial discrimination.

Empirical studies have now been conducted in every major death penalty state
and in 96 percent of them, there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or
race-of-defendant discrimination or both, according to a report by the
Washington, D.C. Death Penalty Information Center. The study also found that
98 percent of those who decide who lives and who dies - the chief district
attorneys - are white. And despite overwhelming evidence of racial
discrimination, the courts and state and federal legislatures have so far
failed to take corrective measures regarding the death penalty for fear of
stopping capital punishment altogether. The lone exception is the state of
Kentucky, which recently passed a Racial Justice Act.

As the war on crime intensifies and crime rates lower, we might presume that
the death penalty is producing the desired effect of deterring violent
crime. That doesn't appear to be the case, however. In a study in 1997
comparing between states with the death penalty and those without it, the
majority of death penalty states have higher murder rates than non-death
penalty states - 6.6 percent per 100,000 population in death penalty states
and 3.5 percent in non-death penalty states. Moreover, a 1997 report from
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that child homicide
rates in the U.S. had tripled from 1950-1993. Compared with 25 other
industrialized nations, most of which had abolished the death penalty, the
CDC report stated that "the United States has the highest rates of childhood
homicide, suicide, and firearm-related death among industrialized
countries." A majority of police chiefs in a 1995 Hart
Research Poll place the death penalty last in a list of potential violent
crime deterrents.

With the evidence mounting that capital punishment is not producing the
desired results, that the innocent, children and the mentally retarded are
being executed in increasing numbers, that our criminal justice system is an
embarrassment before the rest of the world, why does the U.S. insist upon
maintaining the death penalty? The reasons are complex and deeply rooted,
but the underlying source of all of them is fear, as Carter observed.

"Fear is really at the heart of everything. Fear breeds prejudice, inflames
passions, clouds judgement. When you fear something, you can justify
anything. You can justify the erosion of constitutional protections and .
the wholesale application of the death penalty against minorities, the poor,
the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised. Blinded by the fear of crime, we
focus only on the symptoms and completely ignore the costs."

Justice Marshall once said that the measure of a country's greatness is its
ability to retain its compassion in times of crisis. In this war on crime
and our rush to execute the most violent of our criminals, we are not living
up to that standard. Fear is indeed at the heart of our failure, but a need
for vengeance compels us to sacrifice human life to satisfy some arcane
sense of justice. The question we must ask ourselves is this: "Are these the
costs that a civilized society is willing to pay to assuage its fears?"

                 (c) Carolyn Ballard (2000)
                - Republication permission granted for
                 non-commercial and small-press use under "fair use"