One of the sneakier tactics of the anti-death penalty lobby, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and similar groups, is to claim that capital punishment ought to be abolished because blacks are sentenced to death more often than whites or because poor people get the hot juice more frequently than rich people. Because everybody knows the ACLU and its comrades are of leftish orientation, most sensible lawmakers just ignore their whinings as ideologically driven. Now, thanks to the Grand Poobah of the Christian Right himself, Pat Robertson, that may no longer be possible.
Last week at a conference at William and Mary College in Virginia, Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition and the Christian Broadcasting Network, unbosomed his latest cogitations on capital punishment. While he acknowledged that there are biblical grounds for executing certain criminals, Robertson also said in response to a question from the audience that “I think a moratorium would indeed be very appropriate.”
A moratorium would be appropriate, he thinks, because of the very reasons the left-wing ACLU always rakes up — that those defendants sentenced to death, at least in Virginia according to a recent ACLU study, had lawyers who were more likely to be disbarred or disciplined and were therefore probably less competent. Also, as administered in the United States today, the death penalty is supposedly biased against racial minorities.
There are strong grounds for rejecting both of these claims. Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Earley, denounces the ACLU study as “a biased and erroneous report” and affirms that “in every Virginia execution since 1982, the prisoner’s guilt either has been undisputed or conclusively established.” That is the point, isn’t it — whether the condemned prisoners were guilty of capital crimes or not, not whether they were black or white, rich or poor or had Clarence Darrow or Fred Flintstone as their mouthpiece?
But aside from the dubious validity of the ACLU’s claims, Robertson, supposedly a pillar of the political right in the country and the Republican Party, has done an immense disservice to the cause of criminal justice by his thoughtless remarks. As is not unusual when leaders of the right prove themselves to be useful to the causes of the left, Robertson’s stature suddenly began to climb after he made his statement.
Michael L. Radelet, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Florida and a leader of an anti-death penalty group known as Moratorium 2000, announced that he was “stunned” by Robertson’s remarks. “He is unquestionably one of the big moral leaders of the United States,” Radelet spouted of Robertson. Since when has the left regarded Pat Robertson as a “big moral leader”? When he denounces homosexuality, opposes abortion and demands prayer in schools, Pat Robertson is a religious bigot and crackpot. When he suddenly calls for ending capital punishment, all of a sudden he’s a “big moral leader.”
Even if the ACLU case against the death penalty were valid, the remedy is not to stop all further executions but to make the death penalty more just in its application. By the same logic embraced by Robertson, you might as well halt all punishment of criminals if you could show that blacks go to prison more than whites or that defendants who go to jail had worse lawyers than those who didn’t. What’s amazing about Robertson is that he appears to have swallowed whole the socio-babble that the ACLU has always confused with real justice.
As for the myth that blacks get the death penalty more often than whites, author Jared Taylor, in his 1992 study of race relations, “Paved with Good Intentions,” replied to that. “White murderers,” Taylor wrote, citing criminologist William Wilbanks, “no matter whom they kill, are more likely to get the death penalty than black murderers (11.1 percent to 7.3 percent). Furthermore, whites who kill whites are slightly more likely to be on death row than blacks who kill whites. Finally, whites who kill blacks are slightly more likely to be on death row than blacks who kill whites.” It’s dubious the truth about race and the death penalty today is much different from what it was in 1992.
Robertson apparently shot his lip off without knowing the truth or thinking through the implications, ethical as well as political, of what he said about the death penalty. That’s not untypical of the “Christian Right” movement, of which he is a leader, nor indeed of what today passes for the “mainstream right,” religious or not. If serious conservatives want to defend the death penalty as an ethically based and socially useful means of punishing evil and protecting the innocent, they’re going to have to look for a leader somewhere else than in Robertson and the movement he leads.