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

Amnesty International's approach is intellectual and coldly informational, bringing a voluminous library of research and resources and a global perspective to the local protest movement. It can cite studies that suggest the death penalty is prohibitively expensive and is practiced at the expense of budgets that could put more cops on the street. One such study says the U.S. spent $82 million on capital cases in 1993 alone; in California, capital cases have threatened to bankrupt county governments.

"It costs five to six times more to try a capital case than a noncapital murder case," says Georges-Abeyie. "Then it costs anywhere from two to five times more to execute a person than to incarcerate a person for 40 years to life at the highest levels of security."

Other studies have shown that the death penalty does not serve as a deterrent to murder because states with active death-penalty statutes have the same or higher homicide rates than states without them.

"It's as if you went to a physician and said, 'Give me the most expensive, ineffective prescription you have,'" says Georges-Abeyie.

A 1993 report of the U.S. House of Representatives judiciary committee found 48 men who were sent to death row and later found to be innocent. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, however, ruled that a convicted man could be put to death despite new evidence indicating innocence, so long as due process was followed during his trials.

In the more liberal 1970s, the Supreme Court threw out state death-penalty statutes because they verged on cruel and unusual punishment. As eyewitness accounts bear out, the electric chair, the gas chamber and lethal injection are not always efficient, instantaneous and painless forms of euthanasia.

"Amnesty is not opposed to punishment," says Georges-Abeyie. "We are not opposed to safety. We believe an offender should be punished. The issue is punishment without torture and abuse."

Furthermore, the 1970s courts noted that the death penalty was applied "capriciously." If the political makeup of the Supreme Court has changed enough in the past 30 years to cast those decisions aside, the capriciousness of imposing the death penalty, arguably, has not. In cases where more than one person committed the murder, usually only one is sentenced to death while the others turn state's evidence and receive lesser sentences. According to AI statistics, of 20,000 homicides, only 250 resulted in death penalties.

Daniel Georges-Abeyie has met monstrous murderers, men who buried women in the woods and then returned repeatedly to dig them up and rape the decomposing corpse. He knows of a man who killed women by ripping off breasts with his bare hands, another who carried severed genitalia in a plastic baggy. They did not go to the gas chamber.

"The point I'm trying to make is that the worst of our offenders, the most violent people, don't go to death row," he says, his soft voice never breaking cadence. "The social outcasts go to death row. The homosexuals and bisexuals go to death row. Nonwhites who kill whites go to death row. People with incompetent counsel go to death row. Persons with IQs below 80 go to death row.

"I could go on and on."

Daniel Georges-Abeyie so resembles the legendary Indian spiritual and political leader Mohandas Gandhi--if Gandhi had been buff, that is--that his friends call him "Gandhi." But few people seem to know him intimately. There is genuine warmth beneath his stern exterior, but he seldom reveals much of his past. He has fathered four children from two failed marriages, but he refuses to talk about them.

Instead, he seems to drive himself like a man trying to evade his memories. He escapes most weekends on trips with a Valley hiking club, of which he is president. Every evening he works his body for an hour and a half at a Scottsdale health club. He claims that he does 1,000 pushups and 1,200 crunches every day.

He leads a martial-arts club at ASU West and gives private lessons in hapkido, a Korean street-fighting art that is at once beautiful and brutal. Hapkido is an art well-suited to Georges-Abeyie's temperament: It has graceful flowing motions designed to break bones contrasted with a strong intellectual abhorrence of violence and a vow to exhibit self-control even in the face of death.

"If I had not been in martial arts, I think that I would be in prison or dead," Georges-Abeyie says. "Everyone around me in my world in the South Bronx went to prison or went insane from drug use or alcohol or they died. I know at least eight men who were sentenced to death. I grew up with them. They were my cohorts."

Daniel Georges-Abeyie was born in New York City in 1948. His mother was a U.S. citizen, a Sea Islander, as the Gullah-speaking folk from the islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia are called. His father was from Tortola, an island in the British West Indies, east of Puerto Rico. Both parents were descended from escaped slaves. "Georges" presumably was the name of the plantation that the father's ancestor had escaped from.

"'Abeyie' means 'return when the time is right,'" Georges-Abeyie says. "It's a Fanti name, from Ghana. The Fantis have a tradition that when a major life event occurs, the name changes."

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