The death penalty and the costs of an obsession
By E.J. Dionne Jr.,
The unseemly love affair some American politicians have with the death penalty is bad for justice and bad for our country’s standing in the world. It inflicts a wholly unnecessary moral stain on a nation that rightly preaches the rule of law to everyone else.
Even more remarkable is the indifference that five Supreme Court justices have shown to such considerations.
And then there is Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who insisted on pushing ahead last week with the execution of Humberto Leal, a Mexican national convicted of the rape and killing of a teenager. Even former president George W. Bush — who presided over 152 executions as Perry’s predecessor — had qualms about the case. Bush hasn’t gone soft. He’s legitimately worried about the costs of the United States thumbing its nose at the government of Mexico and the world.
President Obama, the International Court of Justice and the Mexican government all wanted a stay of execution. But Perry’s press secretary was unapologetic. “Texas,” said Katherine Cesinger, “is not bound by a foreign court’s ruling.”
Imagine that an American life was at stake and a press secretary said that Iran — or Russia or Saudi Arabia or China — did not feel “bound by a foreign court’s ruling.”
Let’s be clear: This case involved a brutal crime, and Leal himself seemed to confess his guilt just before he died. “I take full blame for everything,” he said. “I am sorry for what I did.”
The Associated Press summary of the charges against Leal makes plain the sheer evil of the crime. It involved “the 1994 murder of 16-year-old Adria Sauceda, whose brutalized nude body was found hours after he left a San Antonio street party with her. She was bludgeoned with a . . . 30- to 40-pound chunk of asphalt.”
No one disputes that Leal deserved to be punished. And while I am strongly opposed to the death penalty, I would stipulate that if a state chooses to have one, this is the sort of crime for which it was intended.
But the episode dramatizes the way in which these inevitably politicized death penalty cases — Perry is mulling a Republican presidential candidacy — seem to harden us and rob us of reason.
The International Court of Justice ruled that 51 Mexican-born inmates nationwide, including Leal, were entitled to new hearings in American courts to determine whether their consular rights were violated. President Bush accepted the decision, but the Supreme Court overruled him in 2005.
So Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been pushing — so far unsuccessfully — to change American law to comply with the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. He argues that “thousands of Americans are detained abroad while they study, travel, work, and serve in the military” and need access to consular officials who can “monitor their treatment, help them obtain legal assistance, and connect them to family back home.”
The Vienna Convention, which the United States agreed to, protects such rights, Leahy noted when he reintroduced his bill last month. “But it only functions effectively if every country meets its obligations under the treaty — including the United States.”
The four more liberal justices on the Supreme Court thought that little would be lost by delaying the execution. Writing for the dissenters, Justice Stephen Breyer sensibly argued that “it is difficult to see how the state’s interest in the immediate execution of an individual convicted of capital murder 16 years ago can outweigh the considerations that support additional delay, perhaps only until the end of the summer.”
But the five-justice conservative majority let the execution go forward on Thursday. They dismissed the president’s worries about the impact of the execution abroad as “free-ranging assertions of foreign policy consequences” that were “unaccompanied by a persuasive legal claim.” It’s disconcerting that a majority of our Supreme Court seems positively impatient to just get on with these executions.
Those who oppose the death penalty or think it’s imposed too frequently don’t disagree that terrible crimes deserve severe punishment. But this is not about absolving criminals. It’s about our nation’s core values and how the rest of the world sees us. In this instance, it’s also about protecting the rights of Americans overseas.
When it comes to capital punishment, can’t we find it in ourselves as a nation to let our reason check our passions, even when those passions are entirely understandable?