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Jewish World Review May 8, 2002/ 26 Iyar, 5762

Kathleen Parker

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Consumer Reports

Death, be not political | COLUMBIA, S.C. Bad behavior is what gets most people consigned to death row, but bad luck gets them on the execution calendar during an election year.

Meet Richard Charles Johnson, the most recent addition to the opinion-poll execution roster. Johnson was executed in South Carolina last week amid a firestorm of controversy, more than reasonable doubt and, you guessed it, a gubernatorial race.

Incumbent Gov. Jim Hodges, a Democrat, faces strong competition from Republicans, whose leading contender seems to be fire-breathing, pro-death-penalty Attorney General Charlie Condon.

To objective observers, Johnson's bid for clemency was a no-brainer. The facts were compellingly in his favor. But to those who measure time by elections, he didn't stand a chance. Johnson had to die because - make no mistake - we are tough on crime 'round here.

Among the facts that would have made clemency an easy choice for Hodges is that Johnson was convicted of killing a South Carolina state trooper on the testimony of two hitchhikers he picked up after stealing a motor home. The owner of the motor home, C. Daniel Swanson of Fairfax, Va., also was killed. Johnson pleaded guilty in Swanson's death and was sentenced to life.

The two hitchhikers, who were granted immunity from prosecution, were of dubious integrity. One of them, Connie Sue Hess, told police immediately after Johnson was convicted of murder that she had lied on the stand when she fingered him as the triggerman. She was the one who shot the trooper, she said.

But then, what is Hess' word? On still another occasion, she said that her fellow hitchhiker, Curtis Harbert, pulled the trigger. She also blamed Harbert for killing Swanson. Thus, on the testimony of a woman who changed her story at least twice, Johnson was convicted and killed. Curiously, Hess' confession was ruled unreliable.

Confounding Johnson's case was the absence of any physical evidence. When Johnson's hands were tested for gunpowder residue, none was found. The state failed to test for residue on Hess' and Harbert's hands during the critical time period.

In other words, the state convicted Johnson without physical evidence and without a credible witness. Such are the surface details.

Beneath the surface, the details are these: Johnson was white; the trooper who died in 1985, Bruce K. Smalls, was black. In a state that still flies the Confederate battle flag on its statehouse grounds, could a Democratic governor grant clemency to a white man convicted of killing a black man? That would be a big "no."

Most important, Hodges faces re-election in November, most likely against Condon, who has few peers in the tough-on-crime department. Nationally, Condon played a key role in lobbying Congress to withdraw funding from death-penalty resource centers and is known as a crusader against death-penalty appeals.

Back home, he's best known for handcuffing crack-addicted pregnant women to the delivery table during childbirth and hauling them off to prison immediately afterward for failing to kick their drug habit during pregnancy. Let's just say, Condon as a pregnant voodoo doll would be a big seller in South Carolina maternity gift shops.

No one envies a governor's awful duty to determine when and whether to grant clemency. But increasingly, death-penalty cases have become vehicles for political grandstanding rather than fresh opportunities for justice. Hodges is but the most recent among a host of governors who opt for someone else's death over their own political demise.

President George W. Bush, while governor of Texas, reportedly presided over an execution about every two weeks. Few can forget the high-profile execution of ax-murderess Karla Faye Tucker, who gained media attention because (a) she was a woman; (b) she was telegenic; (c) she was a born-again Christian, apparently rehabilitated.

But, possibly more important, she was white and not the only woman on Texas' death row. Another woman, Erica Sheppard, a black, who had forfeited her appeals was scheduled to die after Tucker. Could Bush grant clemency for a white woman and kill a black woman? Another big no. Sheppard subsequently changed her mind and is appealing her sentence.

At least in Tucker's case, her guilt was certain. Other cases are less clear, or they involve extenuating circumstances, such as insanity or mental retardation, that cloud adjudication. While still governor of Arkansas, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton famously took time away from the campaign trail in 1992 to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally disabled that he saved dessert from his last meal for "later."

Such obvious distortions of justice, combined with recent DNA advances that have resulted in the exoneration of numerous inmates scheduled for execution, make imperative a reappraisal of our attitudes toward and application of capital punishment. Given the politicization of death-penalty cases, a moratorium on executions in the meantime seems the least we should do.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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