On the penalty of death

Mar 1, 2000 at 12:00 am

No law shall be enacted providing for the penalty of death. –The Constitution of the State of Michigan, Article IV, Section 46

George W. Bush might have done better in Michigan had he been running in 1830. That was an era when pigs were allowed to run freely through the streets of Detroit, as long as they had rings in their snouts to prevent them from rooting up the lawns.

We also had a public whipping post near where Woodward runs into Jefferson, where criminals and, presumably, liberals were flogged. And every so often, Detroiters were treated to a public execution. The last of these took place on Sept. 24, 1830, when a guy named Stephen G. Simmons had his neck stretched for killing his wife. The Lions didn’t play downtown then, either, and temporary bleachers were built for the thousands of spectators who flocked in for the event.

Well, Michigan grew up, became a state a few years later, and matured.

Finally, in 1846, the new state became the first political entity in the English-speaking world to abolish capital punishment. The reason our ancestors outlawed it is as valid now as then; it is inhumane, and mistakes are made. Across the river in Windsor, the Canadian authorities, with much fanfare, had hanged a man named Fitzpatrick who died claiming to be innocent.

Turned out he was. Somebody else confessed, and appalled Michigan legislators were determined to rise above the barbaric custom of state-sponsored murder.

Not so Bush Minor, who a century and a half later has yet to reach the cultural level of those pioneers. Shrub has presided over more executions – 120 – than any other governor in the nation, possibly in history, since taking office five years ago.

Last week, for instance, smarting from his unexpected loss in Michigan, Bush retreated to Texas, where he was asked to consider clemency for a grandma named Betty Lou Beets, who was convicted of murdering her fifth husband.

Now, all indications are that Betty wasn’t exactly a martyr. When they unearthed the poor victim’s body, buried in her front yard, they also found her, uh, missing fourth husband, buried nearby. Beets claimed to have been a battered wife.

Letting her loose, perhaps to go on the marry-a-millionaire show, would not have been a good idea. Yet killing her inspired considerable revulsion.

Bush received 2,108 calls and letters opposing her execution to 57 in favor of it.

Naturally, he did nothing, and she got zapped by lethal injection, in pretty much the same way Jack Kevorkian did it. (Kevo likes execution too, by the way. Only difference between him and Bush is that he’d allow their organs to be harvested.)

Well, Michigan has continued to resist capital punishment’s charms, but sanity is constantly under siege. A year ago, Secretary of State Candice Miller, governor-in-waiting, told me the biggest difference between her and John Engler is that she is hot to establish the death penalty; he, admirably for once, opposes it.

When I remarked that every study has found the death penalty has absolutely no deterrent effect, she said she didn’t care. "There are some crimes just so heinous," that society deserves to see the criminal be punished.

Horrifyingly, she has plenty of company in the Legislature. What baffles me is that supporters of snuffing are generally labeled "conservatives" although, to establish the death penalty here would require a very liberal spending of our taxpayer dollars.

How much? Well, New York, which recently triumphed over crime by re-enacting the death penalty, spent $118 million getting ready for it, establishing death row facilities, etc. That’s only the price to get in the game. Executions themselves are fearsomely expensive, thanks in part to all those necessary appeals. Florida spends $3.2 million per execution.

In Texas, where the Bushwhacker has done his best to make state killing an assembly line affair, they’ve gotten the cost down to $2.3 million a hit. (Still would have been cheaper to have offered Betty Lou a million not to kill Paw.)

If you happen to read this before 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, you might run, not walk to Central United Methodist Church downtown, where Michigan People of Faith Against the Death Penalty is putting on what promises to be an awesome program.

Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair and Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm will be there. They are expected to talk about why it is important to get tough on crime – and why the death penalty is exactly the wrong way to go.

By the way, the guest of honor will be a lady named Sonia Jacobs, who spent some years on death row, as did her husband. Matter of fact, they executed him, before the authorities reluctantly concluded they were innocent. Oops!

You can get more information about the state of affairs from Michigan Coalition Against the Death Penalty, 300 N. Washington, No. 102, Lansing 48933, 517-482-4161.Unless, that is, you think Tom Paxton sang it best:

The present rules could use revision / make the obvious decision / put it all on television / let’s bring back the chair! / Slap a little makeup to ‘em / and as the juices sizzle through ‘em / Howard Cosell could interview ‘em / let’s bring back the chair!*

I know Howard’s dead, but Barbara’d be better at it anyway. This may be a stretch, but stranger things have happened, and electing the Shrub would be a fine start.

*Bring Back the Chair, New Songs From the Briarpatch, Vanguard, 1977.