Why America kills off killers
The Toronto Star
Why America kills off killers By Kathleen KennaAUSTIN, Texas - Ask Americans about punishing killers and you're likely to hear: Hang 'em. Fry 'em.
Convicted murderers in the United States face execution in 38 states by firing squad, hanging, gas chamber, electrocution or, most often, lethal injection. Among 12 other states there are several where pressure is growing to adopt the death penalty.
On Tuesday, Texas may win the distinction of executing the 500th inmate killed by the state since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, the year, coincidently, that Canada abolished it.
“My position on capital punishment? As close as possible to the switch, ” says Hank Hill, working class hero of King of the Hill. The raunchy, Texas-based cartoon was praised last year as the best television show by top critics, including TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly.
Hank may be a redneck but he speaks for rich liberals in gated communities of California – home of America’s largest death row – as much as he does the middle class of Florida, where a faulty electric chair is still applauded despite its slow-death burnings of condemned men.
Public opinion polls show Americans overwhelmingly approve of the death penalty even though it has been abandoned by every other major democracy.
Its abolition is demanded by groups from the World Council of Churches to Amnesty International. The U.S. is among only 13 nations that voted earlier this year against a 63-country resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, calling for a global moratorium on state executions. (All the others were major human rights violators such as China, Rwanda and North Korea.)
Why does America, which lists “homicide” as the cause of death on official death certificates of executed inmates, still embrace murder- by-government?
The northeastern town of Gladewater is a good place to hear the answer.
Except for the oil derricks that keep some very rich, this town of 6,000 is as “Average America” as it gets.
Illuminated angels for Christmas arc over slightly rundown Main St.
Red brick replaces asphalt to bring a new-old quaintness to the self- proclaimed “antique capital of east Texas.”
It’s a place where the “Just Good Folks!” motto is taken seriously, where restaurants steam with cigarette smoke but are booze-free, and there are more churches than bank machines.
This is where Stan Faulder, an Albertan drifter who was once an auto mechanic and convicted car thief in western Canada, was condemned to death for killing 75-year-old Inez Phillips.
Her 1975 torture – in a failed attempt by thieves to find rumoured jewels and cash – and murder were so savage that few residents can remember anything so horrible before or since in Gladewater.
Phillips, a favourite schoolteacher and matriarch of a wealthy oil family, was covered in bruises from being beaten; her skull was crushed while she was still breathing.
The generous patron of local charities who was often called “saintly’ ‘ died only after being stabbed about 20 times with a knife plucked from her kitchen. It was left embedded in her chest, cracking through bone to spear the bloody body to her bed.
Such images ensure long-lasting support for the death penalty across the country.
And in Gladewater, that indelible stain on town history and private memory is still vividly recalled as the town’s initiation from rural haven to notorious murder site.
It was that moment that people in “just good folks” towns everywhere lament as the awful coming-of-age when they began locking their doors, removing keys from the car ignition, checking more often on pensioners living alone, and snapping at the kids about wandering the streets.
“It was very upsetting at the time because it was especially cruel, ” says Chamber of Commerce manager Joyce Sanov, 61. “And on every anniversary and every time it’s back in the news, the whole town is upset again.
“That’s why most people here – most Texans – support the death penalty. It takes 25 years to happen (execution) and that seems very cruel to us. We shouldn’t have to wait 25 years. What they’re doing to him seems much more humane.”
“Faulder is getting what he deserves,” says retiree Troy Briggs, 61, the same age as the death row inmate. “When you take a life, you give up the right to yours.”
Violent crime has decreased dramatically across the U.S. for the past six years, but polls show the fear of being the victim of violence has increased, along with skyrocketing sales of security devices. The death penalty is seen as a way of stilling not only anxiety but the criminal deemed to create it.
“Violent crime is going down statistically, but when you’re a victim of crime, you’re 100 per cent of the statistics,” says Dianne Clements, 46, president of the Houston-based Justice for All, America’s first and largest victims’ rights group. “In spite of what statistics show, we all feel vulnerable, and we are.”
Internet access to crime stories and statistics in every community make people more aware of the impact of violence, she says.
Crime-saturated mass media feed the myth that there’s a murderer waiting around every corner, and that fattens the appetite for vengeance.
“I think people are angry that someone is getting away with something, ” says Deborah Denno, 46, one of America’s top death penalty experts. “There’s anger especially at the violence when you describe these crimes in detail.
“It’s not some grand philosophy but a real, gut-level anger, a real knee-jerk response to violence,” says Denno, a criminal law professor at Fordham University law school in New York.
Numerous studies discount the public perception that capital punishment is a deterrent to murder, according to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Centre.
“The death penalty is a deterrent,” says Paul Cassell of the University of Utah, one of the few law professors on record as pro-death penalty.
“It incapacitates murderers better than anything else. They don’t kill other prisoners, prison guards or get parole.”
Americans aren’t seeking revenge, but demand the death penalty as “a just punishment that fits the crime,” he adds.
Denno says America celebrates its law-and-order constitution while championing its lawless roots.
“The United States is a much more violent country to begin with. We just have much more violence than other countries that don’t have the death penalty,” she says.
“It’s part of our culture, that “Wild West” history.
“We’re not as constrained as other countries. In Canada, you really DO stop until the light changes.”