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And to Think That We Still Have to Argue Against the Death Penalty

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There's Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, of course, condemned to be stoned and waiting, for the past four years, along with 23 other Iranians, to know if she will be executed, and how.

There's Teresa Lewis, this American of the same age, condemned, as is Sakineh, for complicity in the murder of her husband (although, in her case, and contrary to Sakineh who, we can never repeat it enough, is guilty of no crime, the complicity turned out to be real, confessed by the woman concerned, and the object of a solemn request for forgiveness addressed to the victim's family). So there is Teresa Lewis, this simple-minded woman who could have stepped out of a Faulkner novel and whose execution on September 23rd in Jarratt, in the state of Virginia, scarcely moved anyone.

After Teresa Lewis, there are 3,000 other men and women (3,000! I must be dreaming) who are waiting in the penitentiaries of the largest democracy in the world for the hour of this legal assassination, anticipated, in cold blood, yet which the Supreme Court, in a 1972 ruling, declared unconstitutional. There are these 3,000 men and women, yes, who are dying of not being able to die and whose waiting, the unbearable waiting, is the daily, monstrous, inexcusable rehearsal for the suffering promised them, which an increasing portion of public opinion knows to be unworthy of the country of Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Barack Obama.

There are tens of thousands of Chinese (but, of course, it's less surprising) in the same situation; and there are the thousand odd among them who, in the year 2009 alone, were neatly executed with a single bullet at the nape of the neck--not without the price of said bullet being duly charged to their families.

There are the 107 condemned on the death rows of Japan.

There are those who have been executed in Saudia Arabia, Yemen, and Sudan.

In short, there are nearly one hundred countries where this legal murder, which is the right a State claims to take the lives of certain of its subjects or citizens, still holds sway.

On World Day Against the Death Penalty, last Sunday, the 10th of October, a day of action instituted seven years ago by an organization of NGOs, unions, and legal professionals' associations, it was repeated again that the death penalty has no dissuasive influence, that it in no way repairs the damage a criminal has done to society, and that it does not protect the said society in any manner.

Everyone was reminded of the implacable and impeccable reasoning of Robert Badinter, Minister of Justice at the time, in his great speech of September 17th, 1981, when the death penalty was abolished in France: the death penalty, quite apart from the fact that its principle is philosophically untenable, depends upon the impossible premise of "totally responsible" guilty parties, and of "absolutely infallible" judges.

To American democrats in particular, we presented this argument that is, or in any case should be, irrefutable: the case of those condemned to death, in the United States, who were ultimately judged eligible for release (130 since 1972) or, worse, those who were executed, only to discover, afterwards, that they were actually innocent (eight, still in the United States, solely during the period between 1989 and 2004. Not to mention Teng Xingshan, this Chinese man executed in 1989 for the murder of a woman -- who was found, alive, in 2005!) To those, yes, American democrats who quibble, cavil, and lose themselves in conjecture over the risks to which the judge who allows a criminal to live subjects honest people, we countered with Maïmonides's axiom: "It is more satisfying to acquit thousands of the guilty than to execute one sole innocent man."

Will that be enough?

And is there the least hope to see, if not the world, at least this part of the world we expect to set an example and which, in fact, does so, join, on this point, the circle of reason which is also that of justice and which implies the adoption of, at least, the moratorium recommended by United Nations Resolution 62/149 of December 18th, 2007, declaring the death penalty contrary to the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

As we said in my magazine, La Règle du Jeu, with my young friend Patrick Klugman [see below], the death penalty is not a penalty, it is a crime.

The death penalty is not an act of justice, it is an act of barbarism.

Answering crime with crime, or barbarism with barbarism, is neither in the definition nor even in the interest of States.

And it is for these reasons that the combat against what Camus called the "irreparable penalty" should, indeed, be a worldwide combat.

For Sakineh, and in memory of all the others, we must campaign for the abolition, everywhere, of the irreparable penalty.

The fact that stoning is the most savage form of this penalty can not and must not make us blind to the brutality at the heart of the death penalty as such.

All the rest is merely hypocrisy, cynicism, doublespeak -- and, most assuredly, the defeat of the spirit.

I beg you, Mr. President, Banish the Death Penalty
Patrick Klugman

Paris, October 10th 2010

Mr. President of the United States,

It is too late to ask you to pardon Teresa Lewis. Besides, you are not qualified to grant a pardon any more than I am to request it.

But it is long overdue to beg you to banish this measure, the death penalty, which is part of an age that is not ours and of a country that cannot be yours.

I am by no means entitled to petition you; I am not even a citizen of the United States. Only, there exist universal questions that no man or woman of good faith can turn his or her back on. These two reasons have made me respectfully write to you in the wake of the dreadful execution of Ms. Lewis.

She was 41, and she was executed on September 23rd in Jarratt, in the state of Virginia. This execution by lethal injection is unbearable because it is absurd and absurd because it is unbearable.

The facts are well known and, moreover, no one contests them. In October, 2002, Teresa Lewis left the door of her mobile home open, enabling the assassination by gunshot of her husband and of his eldest son, a soldier of 25, by two associates, in order to share the meagre spoils consisting of the deceased's few belongings and the benefits of his life insurance policy.

Everything leads one to believe that Teresa Lewis, whose I.Q. is that of a borderline mentally retarded individual and who had no previous criminal record, allowed herself to be dragged into this by her two associates, at least one of whom wished to become a professional hit man.

Yet this woman, who admitted her crime and has unceasingly sought the pardon of the families of the victims, was the only one to get the death penalty although she did not actually participate in the murder. Her associates, they, were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The scandal of having judged this simple-minded woman more severely than her accomplices who are hardened delinquents is such that it has left even some partisans of capital punishment in your country speechless.

Nonetheless, let us not confuse the issue.

I do not wish to call your attention here to the disproportion of the sentence but to its remanence and to the astonishment if not downright indignation this situation provokes in all who cherish the United States because they cherish liberty.

It is too late for Ms. Lewis, but not for Troy Davis and 3,000 others who feverishly await their hour on the death rows of your country.

So we are allowed to hope that this one execution too many will demonstrate the inassimilable character of the death penalty in a State of law. Indeed, how can one accept that the judicial apparatus of the world's first democracy turn into a murderer, even to judge murderers?

Mr. President, your country's motto proclaims its faith in God and it knew revolution thirteen long years before France did. These considerations compel us to recall the words of Jean Juarès, founder of French socialism, concerning capital punishment: «I think I can say that it is contrary to the loftiest thoughts and the most noble dreams of humanity. It is at once contrary to the spirit of Christianity and to the spirit of the Revolution.»

As you perhaps know, 29 years ago, as François Mitterrand's Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter abolished the death penalty in France. Beyond just motives, both humanist and philosophical, his demonstration was founded upon an implacable dual observation: no man is totally guilty, and no justice is infallible. This definitive sentence condemns the death penalty today as it did yesterday, in the United States as elsewhere.

As a young Frenchman recalling for you the great figures of my country who have raised their voices against the death penalty, I realize how unjust and, in a word, incomplete I am. This would be forgetting the essential, all these great Americans -- from Normal Mailer to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Elie Wiesel to New Mexico's Congresswoman, Gail Chasey -- who have made and continue to make abolition an American issue.

Moreover, the most advanced legal norm intended to prohibit capital punishment was established upon United States soil -- the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, on December 15th, 1989.

Most of all, how can one deny that the death penalty is closely linked to the question of race when 35% of those condemned to death in America and 42% of those held on death row are black? Must we add that African-Americans constitute only 12% of the total population of the United States while, inversely, 98% of all the judges or jurors who pronounce the death penalty are white? Does that mean that Afro-Americans have a stronger propensity for crime than their white compatriots--with all reservations as to this strange classification of members of the human race--or, on the contrary, that even today, a person of color is more readily condemned, in the United States of the 21st century? You will easily understand, Mr. President, in what direction my own personal convictions lean.

I know this is obviously not the best moment to converse with you on this subject. I know, especially, that this question does not come within federal competence and therefore does not depend upon your magisterium.

Nonetheless I have the weakness of believing that a single word on your part would suffice to condemn the death penalty, morally if not legally, and to remove some of the credit it still enjoys in America and, beyond that, in all the countries where it is applied. This word we wish for, you have understood, is "abolition". If you consent to endorse it, it will undoubtedly be a decisive step in the long quest of right over might and justice over vengeance. What civilized nation will dare, after you, at least in times of peace, to kill in the name of the law?

For all the above, I am writing to ask you, Mr. President, to free your country from a burden and to put an end to the sinister history of the application of the death penalty in the United States.

Please believe, Mr. President, in my respectful regard,

Patrick KLUGMAN
Attorney of the Paris Bar