Obama fails to stop Texas execution

By Angeli Datt

President Barack Obama’s appeal to the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, to halt the execution of Humberto Leal Garcia, a Mexican citizen found guilty of sexual assault and murder in 1994, was ignored on Thursday evening.

Despite pleas from former President George Bush, the State Department, a ruling by the International Court of Justice in 2004 and impending legislation from the U.S. Congress, the Texan governor decided to push forward with the execution after the Supreme Court decided not to intervene at the last minute.

Leal was not given consular access in 1994 in violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Writing to the Supreme Court, Obama’s Solicitor General Donald Verrelli argued that his execution “would place the United States in irremediable breach of its international-law obligation“. The fallout of the execution has potentially dangerous consequences for foreign nationals in the U.S. and American citizens abroad. The case of the U.S. hikers arrested near the Iranian border in 2009 is an example of the importance of this law, as they were all given consular access, and the two remaining hikers in Iran could have it withdrawn.

A cynic might think that Rick Perry’s potential presidential run in 2012 led to his decision to proceed with the execution in order to demonstrate his conservative credentials. But his record demonstrates his undeniable support of the policy, with 230 people executed on his watch, including the continued executions of people with mental handicaps in violation of the 2002 Supreme Court ruling.

What makes this case so compelling is that the U.S. Supreme Court, the Governor of Texas and the Texan parole board stubbornly refused a stay of execution, even when it violated the Vienna Convention and with the potential ramifications for U.S. foreign policy. But it also reinvigorates the debate on the death penalty, a form of vengeance that the United States and many countries still strongly support. This case is not just about access to consular support and international treaties, it is also about the ability of a state to end the life of another.

According to an Economist/YouGov poll conducted in February 2011, 68% of Americans strongly favour or favour the death penalty. These numbers speak volumes about the sentiment of the American people, but it doesn’t explain why they view the death penalty as an appropriate method of punishment. In the same poll, 47% of Americans stated that they do not believe that “executing murderers deters others from committing murder” and 54% thought that “innocent person[s] have been executed in the U.S. during the last five years”.

Many Americans acknowledge that the death penalty is not a strong factor in preventing crime, and the possibility  that innocent lives may be lost, and yet many continue to support the practise. But support for the death penalty is not just confined to those living in countries where it is legal. A YouGov poll in 2010 had 51% of Britons supporting the re-introduction of the death penalty, and an Angus Reid poll in 2005 had 57% of Czechs calling for its return.

That the U.S. joins China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bangladesh and Somalia in the top ten countries that executed people in 2010 is far more worrying, as it translated pubic support for the policy into action. These are not the kinds of countries the U.S. wants to be associated with and tellingly, on 1 July, a Danish pharmaceutical company announced that it would review all U.S. orders of its drug Nembutal, also known as pentobarbital, to ensure that it was not being using in executions.

So why do the majority of Americans support the death penalty? A Gallup Poll in 2004 showed that broadly across the spectrum of gender, age, political preference, and religions Americans support the death penalty, with the only substantial gap in race. Many Americans support the idea that some people cannot be rehabilitated, and it is thus a waste of resources to keep them alive. However, a report from the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found that it is far more expensive to keep an inmate on death row – an extra $90,000 per year per inmate, than in a maximum-security prison. Numerous other states have commissioned reports that have come to similar conclusions.

The final conclusion can only be that the American system still roughly rests on the idea of eye for an eye justice, or the principle of retaliation. Quotes from the families of victims reiterate this idea, with many saying: “justice has been served”. It is hard to judge the position of these families, but Gandhi said it best: “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

Despite the persistence of the practise in the United States and across the globe, those in favour of abolishing the death penalty are gaining some ground. On 1 July, the state of Illinois officially banned the death penalty, joining the 14 other states, the District of Columbia and the 95 countries that have abolished it so far.

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