Tuesday, March 22, 2005


The difference between life and death can rest on the whim of a president or the ability of a lawyer. Whether or not the death penalty can be justified is very much up for grabs.

American writer and anti-capital punishment campaigner Richard North Patterson, was in Australia recently and says, though it hardly needs to be said, that proof of innocence is neither of use nor consolation to someone after they have been executed. All it can do is further fuel the motivation of those fighting for the abolition of capital punishment.

North Patterson believes capital punishment to be an abomination on a moral and judicial scale, a practice prone to corruption, error and ego.

The further her trial progresses, the more two schools of thought emerge about Gold Coast woman Schapelle Corby.

In Australia, the prevailing view is that she is innocent, being forced to sit and wait in a hot, crowded Indonesian prison cell located tantalisingly close to the beaches and other tourist settings she had left Australia to enjoy.

Supporters contend Corby not only is a victim of someone else's cruel trickery, but could become a sacrificial lamb paying for growing anti-Western sentiment within Indonesia's chiefly Muslim society.

The view from Indonesia, however, is that Corby is little more than a brazen opportunist, whose attempt to smuggle 4.1kg of cannabis into Bali last year in a boogie board bag protected only by its zipper, represents the height of arrogance, stupidity or both.

Corby is enmeshed in a legal system the workings of which can be incomprehensible to outsiders. All that is clear, and brutally so, is the possible result - the taking of her life, even if she is innocent.

North Patterson's latest novel, 'Conviction' uses fiction to expose the inadequacies, injustice and inequity of American death penalty law. In its comprehensive dissection of the American legal system, Conviction also can be read as a lesson to other governments and a plea for them, including Australia, not to consider the re-introduction of capital punishment.

While the brevity of his Australian stay did not allow North Patterson to become fully apprised of the Schapelle Corby case, the depth of his study and lobbying in the U.S. allows him to speak about its potential outcome.

"Some people say capital punishment legislation in the U.S. is incompetent. I'm not so sure. Lawyers are incompetent, not the law, because if the goal of the law is finality, even for the innocent, then achieving that goal through an execution is hardly incompetent," he says.

"But there are so many misconceptions about the death penalty that need to be addressed in order to change opinion that capital punishment is an appropriate measure.

"For starters, the American legal system is one that has many examples of people being put to death and later found not to have committed the crime. That is horrifying, but perhaps even worse is the feeble excuse that killing a few innocent people is an acceptable price to pay for getting the rest who are guilty.

"Secondly, the American legal system has too many lawyers who are either poseurs, hustlers or just plain incompetent. And there are not many lawyers prepared to defend the poor in capital punishment cases."

"Thirdly, too many Americans continue to convince themselves that capital punishment is a deterrent to violent crime. If it was, then Texas, for example, would be the safest place in the world. Take it from me, it's not."

North Patterson's mention of the U.S. state of Texas is deliberate. When American President George W. Bush was governor of the Lone Star state, he did not so much increase the number of executions as install an express lane.

Violent crime, however, did not diminish in the slightest, and of the 38 U.S. states with death penalty statutes, Texas executes more often than any other.

Conviction is set in San Francisco 12 years after two brothers, Rennell and Payton Price, have been sentenced to death for the killing of an 11-year-old girl. As the execution date looms, overworked lawyer Teresa Paget, her husband Chris and Harvard law graduate and stepson Carlo become convinced that Rennell Price did not receive a fair trial, may not have been mentally competent to stand trial in the first place, had a lousy lawyer and might actually be innocent.

As North Patterson said in a previous interview: "Probably the No.1 contributor to death sentences is a terrible lawyer."

'Conviction' is a rivetting legal thriller from a writer who started his professional life as a trial lawyer in Washington and San Francisco. He then became an assistant attorney-general for the state of Ohio, before working as the liaison to the special prosecutor for the Watergate hearings in the 1970s, which helped bring down President Richard Nixon.

Among North Patterson's 12 best-selling novels are Degree of Guilt, No Safe Place, Balance of Power and The Final Judgment. He also serves on the boards of several Washington-based advocacy groups dealing with political reform, reproductive rights, gun violence and capital punishment.

Linking gun violence and capital punishment, North Patterson points out how American law is all-embracing in one context, yet apparently selective in the other.

"The right to bear arms, to own guns, is right up there near the front of the American Constitution, yet our gun laws have become idiotic," he says. "These laws make it possible for murderers, abusers, drug traffickers, you name it, to have guns.

The American passion for guns is such that it is possible to own any gun you want. The foolish belief is that guns make us safer, as if a bar full of armed drunks is safe. What kind of thinking is that? The nightly news is full of examples of the folly of our gun laws," he says.

Yet strangely, America's constitutionally approved right for everyone to own a gun is an example of democracy at work. In the case of the death penalty, however, democracy and equality are less visible, a point well made in 'Conviction'.

"Individual crimes must be punished, of course," says North Patterson. "But the U.S. death penalty is a classic example of the inequities within American society.

Death row cases in the U.S. are dominated by the
disenfranchised - blacks, Hispanics, the poor, people of substandard mentality, people with lack of opportunities in life, victims of abuse. They are also the people who cannot afford the best legal representation and so, as occurs in 'Conviction', they suffer from an incompetent defence," he says.

"If that's not bad enough, the final nail in their coffin - so to speak - comes in the form of community attitudes that say `Well, these are not worthwhile people to begin with, so what does it really matter if they're executed?'"

"Implicit in that attitude is a sense, a belief, that even if a person didn't commit this particular crime for which they are to be executed, they would have committed a similar crime sooner or later, so the death penalty is vindicated."

Then there is the scapegoat theory, which finds a person being made an example for social or political reasons, for the need for justice to be seen to be done. It is into this category that many fear Schapelle Corby has fallen.

While it serves nothing and no one to compare one country's legal system with another, compounding Corby's woes is the level of bitterness currently bouncing between Indonesia and Australia over the two-and-a half-year prison sentence recently given to Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir for his alleged role in the Bali bombings of October, 2002.

Such ill feeling is a component of the ever-broadening division between Islam and the West since the events of September 11, 2001, and which have led to the ongoing debacle in Iraq, an increase in fundamentalist-inspired terrorism and the rise of the kind of ultra-right wing thinking that saw President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard re-elected so profoundly.

"It's a worry," says North Patterson. "The rise of the right wing makes it difficult to make headway in the fight for reforms on capital punishment, although that doesn't mean you stop fighting."


Stats from 2004 reveal a sharp rise in the application of capital punishment around the world, although it is likely verifiable figures fall well short of the reality.

Executions by shooting were carried out last year in Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Yemen, either by firing squad or a single bullet to the back of the head.

Hanging was prevalent, with executions in Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, India, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan and Singapore. Most of the 157 verifiable hangings last year were by the short drop method, although Iran continues to execute people by hoisting them into the air by crane (includes a 16-year-old girl, Ateqeh Rajabi, for her crime of premarital sex).

Saudi Arabia remains the only country where beheading is an official form of punishment, while lethal injection was the primary process in the United States.

Countries in which verifiable executions took place in 2004: Afghanistan - 1 shot; Bangladesh - 12 hanged; China - 24 shot and 193 injected; Egypt - 6 hanged; India - 1 hanged; Indonesia - 3 shot; Iran - 95 hanged; Japan - 2 hanged; Jordan - 1 hanged; Kuwait - 9 hanged; Lebanon - 2 shot and 1 hanged; Pakistan - 10 hanged; Saudi Arabia - 36 beheaded; Singapore - 4 hanged; United States - 58 injected and 1 electrocuted; Uzbekistan - 2 shot; Vietnam - 44 shot; Yemen - 1 shot.

(source: Gold Coast Bulletin, Australia)

(picture: Capital Punishmet)

By ACADP and Just Us posted 22 March 05

* ACADP Incorporated *
The Premier Australian Internet
Resource on Capital Punishment


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Here come de Judge - Time to Leave [266]
There have always been examples of rulings and interpretations that have supported the saying "The law is an ass". This is increasingly the case, because even the best intentioned judges are now facing an avalanche of new technologies and social change. But, it is no good making excuses for the judiciary and continuing to accept their strange interpretations. We must recognise that not only judges but the whole legal system will struggle more and more. In the end the whole system will become a farce. This is the way empires end.