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A Quiet Voice Against the Death Penalty

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.'"

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."

Georges-Abeyie's mother wanted her children to be born in the U.S., but the family returned to Tortola shortly after Daniel's birth.

Georges-Abeyie spent the first five years of his life in island paradise, but, as his grandfather told him, "You can't eat sea and sand," so the family moved back to New York, and Daniel's father became a New York Transit Authority police officer.

The family lived in a West Indian enclave in the South Bronx, and Georges-Abeyie remembers seeing vast firestorms from the windows of the family apartment as buildings were burned in rage or for insurance money. He remembers hearing rats moving inside the walls of the apartment and going to sleep with cotton in his ears to keep the roaches out.

"My father would take us every week on a car trip," he recalls. "He would take us downtown to see where the whites and the wealthy lived so that we could see the dramatic difference between the two worlds. He was telling us that we didn't have to live like this, that you didn't have to be an animal."

His mother would go to the A&P each week to get a new volume of Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedia and gather the children in the kitchen so that they could all take turns reading and playing games with the words on the page.

The African Americans in the neighborhood looked down on West Indians, calling their diet of plantains and cassava and rice and mangoes "monkey food."

"Also, we were derided because we had an education orientation instead of a sports orientation," Georges-Abeyie remembers.

Anyone who didn't participate in sports was suspected of being a sissy or worse. For survival, Georges-Abeyie's uncles schooled him in the African-originated martial arts of the islands, usually called Capoeira, but which they called, simply, kickin' butt. The toughs in the neighborhood thought it was dirty fighting because it used kicks and sticks and razors, but it kept them at bay. Georges-Abeyie began studying jujitsu and boxing when he was 12, kempo karate as a young man, and finally hapkido when he was in his 20s. Because he could fight viciously, Georges-Abeyie was afforded respect on the mean streets.

He had three brothers and two sisters. His two oldest brothers were killed in separate incidents and some years apart in South Carolina. "I would just attribute it to greed and jealousy," he says. Neither killer was captured or tried.

"You can kill blacks with impunity," he says.
Tortolan pride, he says, is sometimes excessive, and so he will not talk about the murders except in the abstract.

"The immediate reaction is always the same for a victim's family survivors," he says, "anger and rage. I would have liked to have seen those persons apprehended, tried and executed. But soon after, I opposed that. I would rather see them in prison for life, to take their freedom forever, not their ability to breathe and eat."

Striking out in fear or rage is animal behavior, a murderous but irrational trait we inherited from our unreasoning monkey ancestors.

"Some see homicide as a willful act of evil," Georges-Abeyie continues, "and I don't think that's the case with every individual. There are forces that are psychological and social and biological that are so powerful that they throw people toward certain behaviors."

Georges-Abeyie went to public schools in New York, and did well enough to get a scholarship to Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He studied for his master's degree in sociology at the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in urban, social and political geography at Syracuse University. Throughout his university days, he threw himself into civil rights and social justice student activism. Then he went on the academic fast track. By age 23, he was teaching at prestigious Johns Hopkins University, and he bounced through appointments at the University of Texas at Arlington, Penn State University, and California State University at Bakersfield, and finally at Florida State University, where he was an associate dean. He published extensively and earned an extra income as a consultant on everything from terrorism to race relations.

 

Then in 1992, he was invited to teach at ASU West. Because the university requires that its faculty members participate in community service, he became adviser to the student chapter of Amnesty International--he had, after all, been an AI member since the mid-'60s. The assignment fit his only deeply held philosophical beliefs.

Two years later, at a regional meeting in San Francisco, Cossette Thompson, the western regional director of Amnesty International, couldn't help but recognize the impassioned authority with which Georges-Abeyie spoke about the death penalty. She appointed him to the western regional planning commission, a panel of 14 that sets agendas for AI, and made him Arizona state coordinator for death-penalty abolition.

Last spring, Ann Nichols of SOL:PAE, the Tucson-based anti-death-penalty organization, announced that she wanted to start a state coalition against the death penalty. Georges-Abeyie immediately responded.

"He became very active right away in helping us think through how to start the coalition, what were some of the issues we wanted to address in developing a statement of purpose that could gather people around without excluding any," says Nichols.

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.

Governor Symington expressed his outrage. Attorney General Woods worked to ensure that such stays couldn't continue.

"Those on death row who were counting on delays of ten years will find that, in two years, they will be executed," he told the media.

Time ran out for Luis Mata. His execution was set for 12:05 a.m. on August 22; the clemency board hearing started at 8 a.m. the morning before at the state prison in Florence.

The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency has seven members, all of them appointed by Governor Fife Symington. Their job in death-penalty cases is to consider any last issues raised before the convict is put to death. Then they can recommend that the governor grant a temporary stay of execution or a reprieve. Neither of those scenarios has happened in the six capital cases brought before them since the executions resumed in 1992. And in only one instance was there anything less than a unanimous decision to execute; Mata's earlier stay had come from the courts.

Mata's lawyers raised a number of points, including his diminished intelligence. They screened videotaped testimony from the prosecutor who originally tried the case, and he confessed that had he known about Mata's mental capacity, he may not have recommended the death penalty.

Daniel Georges-Abeyie addressed the board on behalf of Amnesty International and the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty, not to forgive Mata his sins, but to ask that he be sent to prison forever.

Georges-Abeyie admits that he is personally repulsed by the brutality of Mata's crime, and he began his speech by expressing his condolences to the family before he stated his philosophical case.

"I believe, as Amnesty believes, that the taking of a life is the most basic violation of the most basic human right, the right to life," he says now. "The board knows that I will plead the Eighth Amendment, that it is cruel and unusual punishment. They know that I will plead the Fifth and Sixth amendments which protect due process issues associated with the case. And they know I will try to point out any errors by the prosecution."

 

On Mata's behalf, Georges-Abeyie presented "Sixteen points of law," he says, along with unmentioned medical evidence suggesting that Mata may not have actually raped Lopez.

The clemency board tapped feet and sat impatiently through his talk. Witnesses claimed that at least two of the board members seemed to be sleeping, one of them behind dark glasses.

"He puts on a very good presentation," says Duane Belcher, chairman of the clemency board, of Georges-Abeyie's efforts. "Obviously, he has an agenda and he has a feeling about capital punishment and the agency he represents. He obviously has presented to the board information for serious thought, and especially when it comes to a situation where the board is going to make a recommendation of sparing or not sparing an individual that's getting ready to be executed."

"It was an effective presentation," concurs Mata's lawyer, John Stookey. "The bottom line is that the clemency board wasn't going to be convinced by anybody."

After a full day's hearings, the board had found no compelling reasons to stop the execution.

Shortly before one the next morning, after giving up hope that any court would grant a stay of execution, as Mata mouthed the words to the Lord's Prayer, he was put to death.

Daniel Georges-Abeyie was outside the prison at the candlelight vigil that forms each time a man is executed, not just to protest the death penalty, but also to provide support for the family of the condemned man.

"We don't want someone executed in silence," Georges-Abeyie says. "We don't want someone executed without the public knowing."

But it was nothing more than a symbolic and frustrated gesture. Georges-Abeyie had decided not to bother with any more clemency board hearings.

"We are not going to win the battle through the courts," Georges-Abeyie says sadly. "We are not going to win the battle through the reprieve and commutation hearings. We must win the battle by educating people and winning hearts and minds. We must pass legislation. Our goal is to abolish the death penalty through legislation."

He went home crushed and exhausted.
Then, a week later, Amnesty International called and asked if he could fly to Portland, Oregon, to speak out against a pending execution there.

Dr. Daniel Georges-Abeyie packed his bag and went.


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