When Bob Martinez, the recently defeated governor of Florida, was selected to be the administration's next drug-policy director, President Bush hailed him for having "signed more than 130 death warrants" during his one term in the statehouse. Had the governor's pen been less active, would Martinez have been passed over for the job?
His predecessor, William Bennett, set a demanding standard, having said that certain drug criminals deserved beheadings. Martinez, having directed 130 electrocutions, appears a suitable replacement for Bennett and his zeal for the guillotine.
A skipped detail in all this is that executing murderers has no effect on lowering the homicide rate. It may be the opposite. Using FBI figures, Michael Kroll, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington group, compared the 12 states that have been regularly executing people with the 13 states that have no capital punishment: Between 1976 and 1986, the rate was exactly 2 to 1: 106 murders per million people in states that are executing against 53 per million in states that aren't.
Kroll offers an explanation: certain violence-prone people, seeing the example of governmental killing as a solution to a problem, are persuaded to follow suit. "As a solution to murder," he concludes, "executions are no solution at all."
Pro-death-penalty politicians may be learning that the hard way. An avidity for gassing, injecting, shooting or electrocuting people has not noticeably helped advance careers. Martinez lost in Florida, after running campaign ads boasting of signing death warrants. Diane Feinstein, who had once opposed capital punishment, endorsed it in her try to be California's first woman governor. In the primary, she preened as "the only Democrat for the death penalty." In Georgia, Andrew Young, once a death-penalty abolitionist, ran a losing primary race after endorsing state killings. In Rhode Island, Claudine Schneider, a liberal Republican who yielded a House seat to run for the Senate, lost after making an issue of Sen. Claiborne Pell's opposition to capital punishment.
No one argues that these defeats were decided solely on the death-penalty issue. What's certain is that politicians have been misreading public sentiment. Polls show support for the death penalty when the choice is for or against. But when asked another way -- for capital punishment or for such alternatives as life in prison without parole or severe sentences that include restitution to the victim's families -- the death penalty is rejected.
Some politicians know this. Gov. Mario Cuomo, who won reelection last month saying that "the death penalty is debasing," stated: "For six years, I have been saying I don't believe people want it, and if legislators were really honest about it, they would put two propositions on the ballot -- the death penalty and life imprisonment without parole. ... And life imprisonment without parole would win."
To followers of the George Bush approach -- more executions, more prisons -- Cuomo comes off as another soft-on-crime liberal who doesn't understand that people on death row have committed vile and barbaric acts. Not to treat them accordingly, if only as an exercise in public vengeance, is a sign of national weakness. And America is rugged and tough.
That ethos, believes Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chairman of the House criminal justice subcommittee, helps explain the difficulty many politicians have in opposing capital punishment: "You have to reject a machoism. You have to identify with the wimps. You know, there is a perception of a certain wimpishness about being against the death penalty. I mean, some of my colleagues say to me, 'Fry these vermin, John. What's the problem, man?' "
An answer to that question comes from the former assistant warden of the Angola state penitentiary in Louisiana, who told Michael Kroll: "Before I took this job I was 100 percent for the death penalty. But now I've been involved in 18 of them, and it's a whole lot different. ... It would be easy if these men swung from the bars, drooled or reached out and tried to kill you. But that's not what happens. These are human beings just like the rest of us. They smile and laugh, they have families. The public executes things -- beasts, butchers, killers. But the penitentiary executes men."
Which raises a question: Why didn't Bush say that Martinez signed warrants for the deaths of 130 human beings?