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 Cossette Thompson recalls that just hours after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, she received a phone call asking if the office would stay open.

"It was very symbolic of the prevailing perception that the major problems are only happening in countries on the other side of the globe," she says.

And earlier this year, when a condemned man was executed by firing squad in Utah, Thompson's phone lines burned with calls from journalists in other countries who were astounded that such a thing could happen in the bastion of freedom.

The United States is the only Western industrial nation that still has and uses its death penalty. No western European nations have death penalties for civilian crimes. And in the Western Hemisphere besides the U.S., only Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Guyana and the Caribbean island nations still execute their citizens.

Despite United Nations covenants to the contrary, the United States will execute prisoners who are mentally retarded or suffering from brain damage, and we are one of just six nations worldwide--Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq are the others--that execute persons for crimes they committed before they were 18 years old.

Nichols of SOL:PAE hopes that the Arizona State Legislature will consider bills in the next session to stop both practices. She expects that her husband, Andy Nichols, a state representative from Tucson, will co-sponsor the bills, but she admits, "If we don't have a Republican co-sponsor, we're not going to get a hearing."

There are approximately 3,100 men and women on death row in the 38 U.S. states that still impose death penalties. California, Texas and Florida have the most capital prisoners; Arizona, though the nation's 24th largest state, has the tenth largest death-row population, with 120 men and one woman.

Arizona hanged its murderers until 1931. That year an obese woman who had been convicted for killing a chicken farmer stood, noosed, on the gallows, and when the trapdoor opened beneath her, the weight of her body falling pulled her head right off her neck. Because of that horror, the state built a gas chamber, which it used until 1963 and then--as the nation wrestled with the death penalty in state and federal courts--did not use again until 1992, and then only once before switching to lethal injection.

Arizona judges still imposed the death penalty, but its legality hung in the balance for nearly two decades.

A 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down all state death penalties for being capricious and erratic in their imposition. The Arizona law was rewritten in 1973 but was not used. The Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and a year later, Gary Gilmore faced a firing squad in Utah, the first person executed in a decade.

But the legal challenges had not ended, and the Supreme Court and the U.S. district courts continued to strike down state statutes as late as 1990. The current law calls for the death penalty for first-degree murder, that is, premeditated murder, when there are aggravating factors in the commission of the crime, such as rape or brutality or child molestation or other felonies. The sentence can be mitigated, however, by such things as the murderer's mental health and mental state at the time of the crime.

In March 1992, the state of Arizona put a convict named Don Harding in the gas chamber. It took more than ten minutes for him to die. Horrified witnesses watched him choke and strain and moan in pain. The next year, the state began to kill by administering a lethal injection. Five men have been put to death since then, including two in 1996.

The first man to die this year, Daren Lee Bolton, refused any legal help on his behalf, choosing instead to die without putting up a fight. Daniel Georges-Abeyie spoke on his behalf anyway at his 45-minute-long hearing. But on June 19, Bolton was put to death.

On August 21, the clemency board met again to determine if there was any reason not to send a monster named Luis Mata to the death house.

Mata was one of three men who was implicated in the brutal 1977 murder of Debra Lopez. Mata and his brother Alonzo and a third man had been drinking with Lopez at their apartment, and when the woman got up to leave, Mata grabbed her by the hair and told her that they were going to rape her.

The men beat her until she passed out and, allegedly, while Luis Mata was raping her, she regained consciousness. She struggled and the two fell off the bed. Luis beat her head against the floor.

Luis Mata and his brother then carried her to their car and drove her out to the desert, where Luis slit her throat with an onion knife, cutting so deep that he severed her trachea and esophagus and nearly decapitated her. Then they left her body by the side of the road.

They were caught immediately. The third man turned state's evidence against the Mata brothers; Alonzo was sentenced to life in prison and Luis was sentenced to death.

Capital punishment, however, requires a long string of appeals, some of them automatic, that are supposed to safeguard against executing innocent people. Mata's case raised eyebrows because the presiding judge, Stanley Goodfarb, was already under scrutiny for his continued use of ethnic slurs in the court; during Mata's case, he had referred to illegal Mexicans as "wetbacks." Furthermore, it had come to light that Luis Mata had suffered brain damage in an accident as a child. As an adult, he had an IQ of 64, virtually mentally retarded, which could have been a mitigating factor if it had come up during his original trial. In July 1995, Mata was granted a stay of execution by the courts so that those matters could be addressed.

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