The death penalty is probably a subject you tried to avoid around the holiday table this year. But there are a lot of reasons to bring it up right now.
The execution of Saddam Hussein last Saturday continues to be a topic of passionate discussion around the world in the new year. And a study released in mid-December by the Death Penalty Information Center shows that with 53 executions in the United States, 2006 followed a downward trend in capital punishment, reaching the lowest number in a decade. Here in Oregon, the death penalty has been on the books almost as long as we've been a state, but no one has been executed since 1997, even though there are currently 33 prisoners on death row.
Hot Action broached this macabre topic with Rachel Hardesty, adjunct professor at Portland State University's Criminology Division and long-time volunteer with Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (OADP). Hardesty, 46, spoke with us about the future of the death penalty in Oregon and her take on the execution of the deposed Iraqi leader.
WW: Why do you think we are seeing this downward trend in executions in the United States?
Rachel Hardesty: I don't think support is declining, but I do think people are losing confidence that it actually does the job that it is supposed to be doing. I think there are a few reasons for that. One is the length of time it takes people to process through their appeals. Another is the fairly recent concern about the number of people who have turned out to be innocent or wrongly accused who are on death row. Another reason is the concern about lethal injection being inhumane. What we are seeing at the moment is that even when people go to trial, juries are not imposing the death penalty. We're seeing a change in jury behavior.
WW: What is your take on the execution of Sadaam Hussein?
I think it's inevitable, but I also think it's extremely unfortunate that America is supporting it. I think it's very shortsighted. It's a very potent recruiting tool—these kinds of executions become martyrdoms. I think these crimes—crimes against humanity—should be tried in international court. Crimes against humanity are crimes against humanity and not against a nation. The whole trial has been sort of suspect because of Washington's involvement. It's a disastrous bit of foreign policy in my view. (I'm speaking here for myself and not for OADP.)
WW: OADP has been fighting an uphill battle in Oregon for some time now. Any new ideas for 2007, now that Democrats have control of the legislature?
We have quite an interesting picture of what is going on in Oregon at the moment. The death penalty in Oregon is a constitutional matter, so legislative change, I think, would not be supported unless [the death penalty] was in complete disuse. I think we are moving towards disuse, but whether we're moving towards an attempt to change the constitution, I don't know. The trend is very gradual, but it certainly reflects the national trend. It will be interesting to see what happens. Last legislature, Democrats as well as Republicans brought bills that would have extended
the death penalty. Every one of them was defeated. I don't think this is a particularly partisan issue.
WW: What kind of alternatives to the death penalty does OADP propose?
Currently, there are two alternatives to the death penalty. One is life without the possibility of parole and that is our default sentence for aggravated murder [in Oregon]. The other is life with the possibility of parole after 30 years.
WW: Why are these alternatives better or more effective than a death sentence?
Well, I think it provides a number of opportunities and prevents some damaging results. Victims' families are not going to be involved in a lengthy appeals process, and they know that the legal aspect of the case has been resolved. It does create an opportunity—which not everybody should, in my view, exercise—for the victims' families to question the offender in victim-offender mediation, which can have very profound effects on both parties. The death penalty involves the offender in a process which really is counter to that opportunity as he fights for his life. I think that life sentences also provide an opportunity for offenders to make reparations where death sentences do not. I actually think that death sentences don't hold people accountable in the way that they should.
The other thing about it is that death sentences have to be imposed by people. I've done some pretty extensive interviewing with people who were involved with executions and I haven't met anyone who didn't find it traumatizing. The people who do executions are not murderers, and yet our state puts them in a very ambiguous position with regard to murder. JULIE SABATIER
Check out Hot Action, WWire's weekly post about activists, demonstrations and other hot political action in and around Portland every Tuesday.
UPCOMING HOT ACTION EVENTS
Wednesday, January 3
Rally to Support Suzanne Swift
For those willing to travel, there will be a rally in support of Suzanne Swift, who went AWOL after alleging she was sexually abused by her commanding officers in Iraq. This event has been organized by South Sound Project for Military Resistance and Justice. 11:30am Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action near Bangor Naval Base in Poulsbo, Washington. Directions available here.
Friday, January 5
Reading: John Zerzan
John Zerzan is controversial, to say the least. He's an anarchist and primitivist philosopher, whose work criticizes everything from domestication to mathematics. His latest book, published in 2002, is Running on Emptiness
. He'll be in Portland this week, sharing his ideas about drawing on our prehistoric roots to build a freer, better society. Laughing Horse Bookstore 12 NE 10th Ave. 7-9pm. Free.
Saturday, January 6
Die-In at Pioneer Square
What's a die-in you ask? It's a theatrical protest, where people lie on the ground and pretend to be dead to bring attention to actual deaths. In this case, anti-war activists are holding a die-in to mark the 3,000th officially acknowledged death of an American soldier in Iraq, which was just announced Monday. Pioneer Courthouse Square on Saturday at noon. Free.
Saturday, January 6 and Sunday, January 7
On November 18, 1978, over 900 members of Peoples Temple died in the largest mass suicide/murder in history. Using never-before-seen archival footage and survivor interviews, this film tells the story of the people who followed Jim Jones from Indiana, to California, and finally to the remote jungles of Guyana, South America, in a misbegotten quest to build an ideal society and rid the world of injustice. If you haven't seen this disturbing true story of the Jonestown Massacre, you still have a chance to catch a weekend matinee. Saturday and Sunday 2:45pm at the Hollywood Theater 4122 NE Sandy Blvd. $6.