Fixing the System

Nov. 11-17, 2004
Fixing the System
By Rick Fitzgerald/ SUN contributing writer
Le Moyne Lecture Lowers Boom on Capital Punishment

For over 2,000 years, the validity of capital punishment has raised many questions and sparked many debates with strong supporters on both sides of the issue. Should people be put to death for committing a crime? Is there a crime serious enough to warrant the taking of a life? The Bible is full of stories where it was used for a number of crimes, ranging from adultery to blasphemy. The most famous case is, of course, the crucifixion of Jesus. These and other aspects of capital punishment were addressed in “Rejecting Death: Removing Violence from Justice,” a recent panel discussion hosted by the Le Moyne College Chapter of Amnesty International and Jail Ministry. The speakers for the evening were three local, prominent opponents of the death penalty, Dr. Susan Behuniak, Dr. Sam Donnelly and Bill Cuddy.

In 1975, then-Father Cuddy started Jail Ministry, a program that gives bail money to prisoners’ families at reduced rates. He began the evening by asking the audience what famous person came to Le Moyne in 2000. The answer was Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the book, Dead Man Walking. During her visit, she circulated petitions to place a moratorium on capital punishment. At the end of the year, Sister Prejean took over a million signatures to the United Nations. That same year, the governor of Illinois commuted the sentences 13 people on death row. “They were exonerated, because new evidence found them innocent,” Cuddy said. He then stopped all executions in the state. Currently, 117 have been taken off death row in this country. “A lot of those releases came because of people outside the system, not the system itself, kept after it and brought evidence that finally made the case for innocence,” Cuddy continued.

For the past 40 years, capital punishment has been on and off the books in the U.S. In 1967, there were no executions because of the way death penalty sentences were being handed down by the courts. Five years later, the Supreme Court struck down all those statutes because they were used arbitraily, Cuddy stated. But, it was brought back just four years later because of new statutes given to the court by the states. By 1976, the death penalty was the law of the land in 38 states. But, it was still far from perfect. Justice Harry Blackmon, who had voted both for and against capital punishment, called it “a failed experiment” in 1994. According to Father Cuddy, “There are over 3,500 organizations across the country that have declared moratoriums and 125 local governments. So, there is a crescendo to call a halt to the death penalty in this country. We need a justice not filled with revenge but a justice that can heal, a justice without violence.”

Dr. Susan Behuniak, a professor of Political Science at Le Moyne, opposes capital punishment because “it is a violation of equal protection under the law. The way the death penalty has been administered, it is racist.” The main focus of her stance is that it “constitutes a state seizure of a person’s body for state ends.” She referred to this as body ethics. Behuniak continued her explanation of body seizure in terms of several movies and TV shows, such as “Alien,” “The Matrix” and “Star Trek:The Next Generation” with aliens known as “The Borg.” In all of these presentations, people have lost control of their bodies to someone else. In a democracy, the state and its citizens aren’t separate things. The state is made from the people living in it. “It seems inherently wrong to me,” said Behuniak, “that in a democracy, the state would intrude into the body of some of its people for state purposes.” There are several ways that the state is prohibited from entering a person’s body without permission. It’s illegal to pump someone’s stomach or remove a bullet from someone without their consent. “I would add to this list most definitely the imposition of capital punishment,” Dr. Behuniak said, “deliberately using state resources and state personnel to extinguish a person’s life by siezing a person’s body and then injecting it, electrocuting it, hanging it, or firing guns at it.”

The final speaker of the night was Dr. Sam Donnelly, a professor in the Syracuse University College of Law. His main goal was to make a legal case for abolishing the death penalty. He began by saying that he agreed with many of the statements his colleagues made. Then he quoted Pope John Paul II who said that capital punishment is “cruel and unnecessary.” He then added, “Capital punishment is cruel because it is excessive, beyond what is needed for crime control and therefore unnecessary as well as cruel.” This would mean that the death penalty is unconstitutional under the eighth amendment which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Dr. Donnelly then addressed the issue of its being a deterrent to crime. “There is no generally accepted study which demonstrates that capital punishment produces a greater marginal deterrent effect on crime control than life in prison.”

He then took up Dr. Behuniak’s argument that capital punishment is racist by saying, “In death penalty cases, racial discrimination often appears in the form of race of victim, rather than race of defendant discrimination. Race of victim discrimination exists when district attorneys seek the death penalty most often where a black defendant has been accused of killing a white victim and hardly at all where a black defendant is prosecuted for killing a black victim.” Dr. Donnelly gave examples of Cuddy’s thought about the death penalty being handed down arbitrarily. “Capital punishment was imposed three times in Suffolk County and not at all in neighboring Nassau and upstate district attorneys seek the death penalty more frequently than those downstate.”

It’s been 40 years since the last execution in New York State, due largely to discussions like this one and the efforts of the people who circulate and sign petitions against the death penalty. Their goal is simple: take the decision of which criminals live and die away from the courts and give it back to the one who’ll judge everyone someday.

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