Last month, without much fanfare, it became clear that there is a de facto moratorium on executions in the United States. The Supreme Court indicated it will put all executions on hold while it evaluates the constitutionality of the lethal injection procedure used across the United States.
The Court isn't evaluating the legitimacy of the death penalty overall — not the fact that more than 90 percent of those charged with a capital crime are too poor to hire a lawyer, nor the fact that more than a fifth of African-Americans executed since 1976 were convicted by all-white juries. It is only considering the particular cocktail of drugs used to kill them.
And yet the moratorium doesn't only bring us one step closer to abolition by focusing attention on an institution that Americans feel ever less certain about supporting. It also reflects years of unheralded, grassroots organizing whose effects are only beginning to be felt.
For me, this case is personal — because it represents some of the greatest victories, and worst defeats, of my own experience as an activist.
In late 2005, while applying to school at UW, I was also fighting to save a man named Stan "Tookie" Williams. Tookie was a founder of the notorious L.A. gang, the Crips, and there is credible evidence that he was innocent of the crime he was convicted of. In prison, he grappled with his past and ultimately transformed himself. He used his own experiences as the basis for a series of children's books speaking out against gang violence, convinced gang members in Newark to arrange a truce and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times.
But to the state of California, there is no redemption for men like Tookie. Despite protests around the world, he was executed on Dec. 13, 2005. For those of us who had fought to save him, his death was a brutal blow. And it was made more horrible by the way they killed him. As Barbara Becnel, Tookie's co-author and friend, described the execution, Tookie was "tortured to death," killed in immense pain because of inadequate anesthetic.
Tookie's wasn't by any means the first execution like this, but it was the first time people paid attention. Two months later, a California judge evaluated Ms. Becnel's account and halted the execution of another man. Then anesthesiologists began to refuse to participate in executions at all. People across the country realized lethal injection procedures are based on junk science — that prisoners are pumped full of drugs to paralyze them, but not necessarily enough to stop their pain. The British medical journal The Lancet identified 21 executions where prisoners may have been conscious but paralyzed while poison stopped their hearts.
We didn't save Tookie's life. But our campaign helped keep his death from being in vain. By the time the Supreme Court agreed to take its case this fall, 11 states had put their own death penalties on moratorium over questions about the lethal injection procedure.
This summer, I was proud to be a very small part of a campaign that accomplished what everyone said we couldn't: We stopped an execution in Texas. Kenneth Foster, like Tookie, was black and poor. He was innocent, sentenced to death for driving a car. And, like Tookie, he was a political force. From death row he organized civil disobedience, fighting for his own life and his fellow prisoners', and for their dignity.
In the euphoria after Mr. Foster's execution was commuted, I felt our triumph had come out of nowhere. But as a member of the CEDP, which has been fighting small grassroots battles since 1997, told me, "It takes 10 years to have an overnight success."
That's the message I'll remember as this Supreme Court case unfolds. While they debate technicalities and procedures, I'll be thinking of Tookie and Kenneth. And I'll know we have a long way to fight until the death penalty is abolished, but that the smaller fights of today — our victories and our tragedies — are the only path from here to there.
Elizabeth Wrigley-Field ([email protected]) is a graduate student in sociology and a member of the International Socialist Organization.