A legal execution occurred last summer in South Carolina, the first in about two years. Donald (“Pee Wee”) Gaskins, a rural Bluebeard credited with 16 murders, was embraced by the electric chair amidst general public relief and the usual candlelight vigils by opponents of capital punishment. The public satisfaction, however, if it rests on a feeling that a rational system of criminal justice has finally been established, is sadly deluded. For the circumstances of Gaskins’ capital sentence serve mainly to point up the absurdity of our federal courts.
Gaskins’ first 15 murders, which included several children, were committed at a time when the learned and statesmanlike reign of Warren, Burger, Brennan, and Blackmun forbade us the right of carrying out our laws of capital punishment. (All the aforementioned are Republican appointees, by the way.)
So Gaskins was resting for life in our state prison when he made the mistake of killing another murderer. This individual, Rudolph Tyner, was also the guest of the state, courtesy of the Supreme Court, although he had coldbloodedly gunned down an elderly couple in their country store. A relative of Tyner’s victims (subsequently also sent to prison) hired Gaskins to carry out the justice that had been denied, and it was for this last murder that he was executed. In moments of provocation I am tempted to suggest that “Pee Wee,” after a life of heinous crime, was executed for the only socially useful act he ever performed. No coherent principle of justice emerges from his fate, except perhaps this: that it is worse to kill one of the prisoners of the welfare-warfare state than to eliminate a dozen of lis mere anonymous taxpayers.
Obviously, race should never become a question under the laws, and most especially the laws of capital punishment. But the opponents of the death penalty have made it an issue. A part of their case, and of the interference of federal courts into the processes of state law, has rested upon the claim that the death penalty has been racially discriminatory. I do not think the case was ever really proved, and it always involved a convenient ignoring of the fact that the crime statistics are also racially unbalanced. The purpose of the claim was clearly to garner for the anti-death penalty movement some of the emotional capital that always adheres to discussion of civil rights.
We in the South have many evils to answer for from the days before the civil rights revolution. Yet, contrary to civil rights mythology, our error in those days, broadly speaking, was not” so much the oppression of excessive punishments to black criminals compared to white criminals, as it was the tacit failing of relative indifference to black-on-black crime. At any rate, those days are gone. No black person is convicted of any crime in the South, whether the victim is black or white, without a substantial black representation on the jury. Convictions not so obtained would be immediately overturned, nor do I think public opinion or the prevailing political powers would tolerate anything else today.
In our state, historically among the worst offenders in racial inequality, there are at present about forty individuals under capital sentence, awaiting the exhaustion of appeals: all but two or three of these are white. (I write from memory but the figures are broadly valid.) Obviously, the capital sentences are racially out of proportion, whether considering the general population or the population of convicted murderers, for those who are interested in such statistics. But if there is any discrimination going on in the application of the death penalty, it is just as obviously against white murderers.
I cite this unseemly matter merely to point out the dishonesty of the anti-death penalty movement in this respect. Having made an impact but not a decisive one, it has turned to other arguments. It has been contended (and I believe it is sub judice still) that the discrimination is in the race of the victim rather than the perpetrator, that the killers of whites are more likely to receive the death penalty than the killers of blacks. The kinds of liberals who advance these arguments are hardly noted for their careful veracity. They can be sure the media will never call them to account, and the official “conservative” spokesmen who reply invariably concede all the important points of the contest before they join battle.
So I would like to see the real data on this. But the contention is inherently implausible. “Pee Wee” Gaskins could not be executed for killing 15 people (all white). He was executed for killing one murderer (black). His last victim (black) could not be executed for wanton murder of two persons (both white). In one of the states thought most likely to be discriminatory.
But this does not begin to complete the catalog of the absurdities that have been forced upon the criminal justice system by the federal courts. It is not just that dangerous criminals are released or have their punishments mitigated. Even where there are convictions, the Supreme Court has surrounded the matter with rules that serve not only to make capital punishment difficult (which may be defensible) but to thrust into it a great deal more irrationality and inequity than was ever the case in the bad old days that were supposed to be reformed.
A relative of mine served on the jury at the trial of an individual who, on the day he was released from prison, killed five people, including a 13-year-old girl. (Criminal and victims in this case were all white.) The jury was sequestered for weeks, most of the time out of the courtroom while the judge decided nice points of what evidence they would and would not be allowed to see (as is now standard). A conviction and a death sentence were finally secured by the sensible people on the jury—no small achievement since defending attorneys these days routinely pack juries with the most ignorant available jurors, who are easily confused and intimidated—itself a travesty of the noble Anglo-American institution of the jury.
But under the rules of the Supreme Court, a mere wanton murder of five persons did not justify the death penalty, unless there were other circumstances. The “other circumstances” were that the killer had casually removed a change purse from one of his victims, making his killing one conducted “in the course of a robbery” and therefore subject to death. But it did not matter, since in a short time the sentence was overturned by a federal judge on the grounds of an alleged trivial error on the part of the prosecutor.
In another case in our state, a young woman (white) was kidnapped and murdered by three men (black) under circumstances so heinous that the death penalty was handed down for the ringleader by a predominantly black jury. Again, within weeks the sentence was overturned by a judge on grounds of a very minor technical violation in the conduct of the trial. Many, many similar instances have occurred.
I wonder if the opponents of the death penalty ever reflect on the damage done to the morale and ethics of the general public by this irrational frustration of the most basic and legitimate thirst for justice? And yet the same smarmy liberals who again and again facilitate the release of those who have broken the first rule of the social contract, lecture us on our moral failings when half of us don’t bother to vote and don’t show a sufficient amount of indignation about the homeless or South Africa.
And the worst of it is that we have created a field of opportunity for political demagogues. We now have before Congress a “crime bill” that provides the death penalty for a battery of federal crimes. This is nothing but fraudulent posturing. As Ronald Reagan was heard a few times to remark, though he was too smug and lazy to act on his insight: the federal government is not the solution, it is the problem. We have a proliferation of crime not because there are too few federal laws but because the federal courts have destroyed the rational functioning of the state criminal justice systems where the crimes that most affect us need to be punished. A federal crime bill does what does not need to be done and does not do what must be done.
We have even had a call, from so distinguished a statesman as Senator D’Amato, for the federal death penalty for drug dealers. The federal government regularly frees murderers but is to prescribe death for dope peddlers? Under what principles of justice or public policy are those who sell narcotics to willing buyers more worthy of death than the wanton killers of innocent people? Are the lives of drug users more precious than those of murder victims? Such would seem to be the unstated assumption. And why should someone who kills a law officer in the course of drug business be any more or less subject to death than someone who kills an officer in the course of any other type of crime?
Here, as in so much else, our establishment, “liberal” and “conservative,” has shown itself utterly unfit to rule. If we are to solve any of our problems, if we are “to secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” we must have a new agenda and a leadership that at least now and then will speak the truth.