A punishing bid for support


January 27, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Bill Clinton picked a super weekend to execute a brain-damaged cop-killer. Had it not been for the publicized allegations of his infidelity and last night's big appearance on "60 Minutes," the Arkansas governor would have been saddled with the specter of Rickey Ray Rector and the image of a roomful of black men and women frozen in a moment of silence. It was an ironic twist that did Clinton great service.

Rector is the 40-year-old black man who killed an Arkansas police officer 11 years ago. He was killed by lethal injection Friday night. Clinton ducked away from the "Gennifer Flowers problem" long enough to oversee Rector's death. It was the third execution during his tenure as Arkansas governor.

Clinton told participants in Saturday's Rainbow Coalition forum in Washington that he had "prayed in private, not in public, for the souls of the condemned as well as those they killed. . . . Last night, I thought of Mr. Rector and also of Robert Martin, the police officer who was killed in cold blood. I prayed that I had not made the wrong decision. I respect your right to disagree [and] all I ask is that you respect mine."

Before we accord Clinton credit for acting on personal conviction, remember that he is running for president and that he once paid a stiff price for being "soft on crime." Twelve years ago, he lost a re-election campaign to a Republican who accused him of that.

So, somewhere along the way, Clinton figured it out. If he can scrape away the moral and ignore the intellectual -- studies continue to show that capital punishment is dished out unevenly and is probably racist, and that it has no deterrent effect on violent crime -- a candidate can instantly tone up his muscles for public display. Favoring the death penalty is the magic lozenge that makes a pol "tough on crime."

However, not everyone running for president favors it. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown is one, and he rubbed the execution of Rickey Ray Rector in Clinton's face. Before addressing the Rainbow Coalition forum, Brown asked the predominantly black audience to rise for a moment of silence in Rector's memory.

You can give Clinton credit for getting up to speak after that. But what credit does he deserve for giving his nod to the death of a loser like Rickey Ray Rector? And, since Clinton's moral code seems to be such an important issue, what do three executions under his belt say about him? You can judge Clinton's relative righteousness by his alleged infidelity and by his performance on "60 Minutes." But we'd be a wiser nation to judge him by his view of the death penalty.

Any politician who has studied capital punishment knows that it does little, in the long term, to prevent crime. It doesn't better educate children so that they do not end up in the abyss of poverty and crime. It doesn't rehabilitate young offenders so that they do not repeat their crimes. It doesn't reduce the demand for drugs so that the supply dwindles, along with the violent crime drug-dealing begets. It doesn't take guns out of the hands of criminals.

This week in Maryland, it will be argued that John Thanos deserves to die. Emotionally, it's an easy case to make. Thanos hTC is a monstrous-looking, cold-blooded killer of two Baltimore teen-agers. He yawned when his guilty verdict was read in Oakland, Md., Friday night. "If there was ever a case where the death penalty should be used, it's this one," I heard several people say.

But what good will killing a looney-case like Thanos do? Will it make us feel more civilized? Will it "send a message"? Will it make other career criminals pause before deciding to pull a trigger? We like to think so, but there's no evidence that we can count on it to do that.

All the death penalty does is satisfy a hunger for revenge.

Yet, politicians like Clinton have adopted it as a way to fool their constituents into believing that something important is being done to stop crime. Two other Democratic candidates, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, also support it. They think it will help them beat a liberal rap and attract those disillusioned blue-collar voters the Democrats lost in the last three presidential elections. But all it really does is muddy the distinction between them and the Republicans.

Civilized societies should not kill those who kill merely for revenge. If government is expected to act in rational ways to reach humane and constructive ends, then the death penalty has no place here. It takes courage for political leaders to say that. It takes nothing for them to sign a death warrant for a killer everyone loathes.

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