A Quiet Voice Against the Death Penalty

Amnesty International's Dr. Daniel Georges-Abeyie coolly argues the case against capital punishment in our hang-'em-high state

Arizona is a hang-'em-high state, and its political leaders are death-penalty poster boys.

Governor Fife Symington publicly blasted the courts for granting a stay of execution. Sheriff Joe Arpaio commended a journalist who witnessed a lethal injection for coming "to see what we do to murderers." Attorney General Grant Woods, a onetime defense attorney in capital cases, lobbied for federal legislation to limit the time-consuming legal obstacles between conviction and execution; then-senator Bob Dole lauded him for his efforts and President Clinton signed the bill into law.

Capital punishment in America is synonymous with law and order, and no politician who wants to be reelected will speak out against it.

Arizona has put six men to death since 1992, one in the gas chamber and the others by lethal injection, and the state plans another execution before the end of the year. Each time, the state clemency board, a prisoner's last chance of a stay or a reprieve, has conducted its death-sentence hearings with unyielding adherence to the guilty verdicts.

And each of the six times the clemency board convened to decide if a man should live or die, telephones started ringing, and the anti-death-penalty forces mobilized to testify on behalf of a violent stranger and to stand vigil outside the state prison in Florence where the hearings and the executions took place.

Each side has Biblical passages to justify its stand: "An eye for an eye"; "Turn the other cheek"; "Thou shalt not kill"; "Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."

The concept of punishing a crime with a like act is called lex talion.
"The only lex talion in jurisprudence is capital punishment," says Dr. Daniel Georges-Abeyie. "We don't rape rapists. We don't sodomize sodomists. We don't burn down the homes of arsonists. We don't steal from those who steal. It doesn't make sense here either."

Dr. Georges-Abeyie (pronounced "Ah-bay-yee") is a world expert and walking encyclopedia on capital punishment, a professor of administration of justice at Arizona State University West. He is Arizona state coordinator for Amnesty International's program to abolish the death penalty, and because of his cool and reasoned manner, his ability to maintain a low and level tone in an argument that raises voices and blood pressures, he has become AI's point man in the western United States.

He is a man of striking presence, as dark and distant as an eclipse, precisely dressed, tautly academic and formal, with a locked-on gaze and a gentle voice.

He has black belts in three different martial arts, and he wears that training as a thin veneer of self-control and serenity over a tense and passionate core. He's seen violence: He grew up in the South Bronx in the 1960s when it burned to the ground. Two of his older brothers were murdered, "one by poison and one by the knife," he says. But he won't say how or why, and offers only that their killers were never brought to justice. "My parents would not want me to talk about it," he says to end the line of questioning.

In March, Amnesty International sent Georges-Abeyie to Alaska to lobby state legislators against putting a capital punishment referendum on the ballot.

"There just weren't any questions he couldn't answer," says Barbara Hood, an Alaskan death-penalty abolitionist. The bill never made it out of committee.

In September, AI sent Georges-Abeyie to Oregon to address the media on that state's first execution in 34 years.

"He was the most remorseless killer I have ever seen," says Georges-Abeyie, but he lobbied on his behalf anyway.

Twice this summer he delivered detailed legal analyses before the Arizona State Clemency Board, hoping to give the board members reason to grant a reprieve or a stay of execution to two brutal murderers.

Arizona is a predominantly white, conservative and anti-intellectual state, and Georges-Abeyie is a black, East Coast intellectual, defending a cause that is dismissed as liberal. So, if the board members don't recall Georges-Abeyie by name, they remember his face and his well-researched arguments.

Amnesty International, of course, is looked upon in this country as some vaguely left-wing collection of liberals fretting about political prisoners in places like Chile and China.

"Amnesty is not a political rights organization, we're not a civil rights organization," says Georges-Abeyie. "We're a human rights organization. There are certain rights that cannot be taken away and cannot be given up. They are your rights simply because you are Homo sapiens. And we defend those rights regardless of the political organization of the nation state."

Though AI has 6,000 members in Arizona, until recently it has not been a dominant force in the death-penalty-abolition movement in Arizona. The tenured protest groups, Middle Ground in Phoenix, SOL:PAE (Sanctity of Life: People Against Execution) in Tucson, and the Catholic Church, frequently approach the topic from an emotional level, as a question of prisoner needs and rights. Before the last execution, for example, the Catholic Church and the prisoner rights groups lobbied to allow a condemned man's girlfriend to visit him in his last days.

"Daniel said that Amnesty International did not do that," says Ann Nichols of SOL:PAE. "He said, 'We conserve our energies for publicizing the death penalty, for the specific facts of the case that might make people believe that this shouldn't happen.'"

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