America's torrid love affair with executions

October 23, 2005|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- He is facing the camera. Facing you.

Voice husky with emotion, Stanley Rosenbluth tells you about his son and daughter-in-law, killed in a drug deal gone south. He shares his loss gravely, bravely. And then, the coup de grace.

"I don't trust Tim Kaine when it comes to the death penalty," says Mr. Rosenbluth. "And I say that as a father who's had a son murdered."

Timothy M. Kaine is a man who wants to be governor of Virginia. But first, he's got to deal with Mr. Rosenbluth and with a police officer's widow, Kelly Timbrook, stars of two commercials aired by opposing candidate Jerry W. Kilgore. The spots - devastating in their power and staggering in their cynical use of the moral authority that comes with loss - have put Mr. Kaine on the defensive by making him out to be soft on the death penalty.

Them's fightin' words in Virginia. Because Virginia, which executes people with a gusto rarely seen in any state this side of Texas, loves its death penalty. Hence, Mr. Kaine's conundrum: He's a Catholic who says he has moral objections to state-sanctioned execution. But he has promised voters he would absolutely uphold the law if elected.

At this point, you might wonder why we're talking Virginia politics. The answer is, we're not. We're talking about death in the United States.

Let me try a theory out on you: This contretemps is not about the future of the death penalty; with either man as governor, Virginia will continue to execute malefactors. Granted, in order to believe that, you must believe Mr. Kaine's vow to uphold the law. I do, given that it would be political suicide to do otherwise.

And if you accept that both men are willing to support the death penalty, then what's at issue here is, which one would do it with enthusiasm?

That's the crux of the charge against Mr. Kaine: Not that he would interfere with the death penalty, but that he doesn't love the death penalty.

For supporters of capital punishment, you see, mere tacit acquiescence is insufficient and moral ambiguity is anathema. Anything less than hard moral clarity opens the door on issues they'd rather not face.

It's fitting that this is happening in Virginia, whose present governor, Mark Warner, has been dithering Hamlet-like nearly four years now over whether to permit DNA testing in the case of Roger Keith Coleman. Mr. Coleman, executed 13 years ago for the murder of his sister-in-law, went to his death saying, "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight."

Indeed, serious questions have been raised about Mr. Coleman's guilt. Now we have sophisticated DNA testing, unavailable during his lifetime, that would definitively settle the question. The state doesn't even have to pay for it; several newspapers and a charity group have volunteered.

You'd think that if the governor were interested in truth, or simply in the vindication of his legal system, he'd jump on the offer. Instead, he stalls.

Because again, there are things death penalty proponents would rather not face. One is that capital punishment is not about truth. Rather, it is about the need to feel righteous and potent in the face of evil. And if we, fallible and human, occasionally spill innocent blood to get that feeling - kill some guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, had an idiot lawyer, got framed by a bad cop - well, his death is a price we're willing to pay.

Mr. Coleman might or might not turn out to be the man who illustrates the point. But if it's not him, it will be somebody. It's just a matter of time.

One wonders what will become of the illusion of moral clarity then. One wonders if it will survive its impending collision with truth.

Or will we finally face the long-deferred indictment of conscience? You see, Virginia is asking the wrong question.

It's not whether Mr. Kaine loves the death penalty too little. The question is whether we love it entirely too much.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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