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Swimming for Death Penalty Abolition

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The recent firing squad execution of Utah death row prisoner Ronnie Lee Gardner briefly catapulted the issue of capital punishment into the national spotlight. However, in a country used to 30-second news sound bites and140-character sentences on Twitter, attention generated by that violent and archaic event faded from public consciousness faster than one can say “Twenty-four hour news cycle.”

Although Gardner is gone, the death penalty is, unfortunately, still very much with us, despite its obvious failure as a criminal justice policy. It has no deterrent effect on murder. Five hundred police chiefs polled nationally in 2009 by R.T. Strategies of Washington, D.C. underscore that fact. They ranked capital punishment as the least important means for reducing violent crime. They also said it is the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money, compared to increasing the number of police, reducing drug abuse, improving the national economy and creating more jobs.

The 35 death penalty states, Virginia among them, grapple with the high costs of capital punishment and its drain on resources from effective crime prevention social needs programs. Last year, 11 states had death penalty repeal legislation pending, with cost considerations as an underlying factor. One state, New Mexico, signed its repeal measure into law.

Various studies illustrate how the death penalty is applied unfairly and arbitrarily. Economically disadvantaged individuals and people of color are disproportionately represented on death row; the former because they could not afford quality legal representation, the latter because of the death penalty’s inherent racial biases. A study issued this year by Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), an Alabama-based nonprofit organization providing legal representation to indigent defendants, shows that African Americans are often barred from serving on juries, particularly in capital trials. EJI notes that an African American is more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white.

Equally disturbing is the death penalty’s tendency for wrongful convictions and executions. This facet of capital punishment moved Lynn Greer of Bumpass, Virginia, the Secretary on the Board of Directors of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (VADP), to enter an athletic competition later this month to focus public attention on the innocent and executed, as well as to raise funds to support VADP’s work.

Greer, 41, will participate in the July 18, 2010 Alcatraz Challenge Aquathlon & Swim in San Francisco. The annual event, sponsored by Tri-California Events, Inc., is a USA Triathlon-sanctioned swimming and running competition. Her goal is to raise contributions in recognition of each of the 138 prisoners exonerated from death row since 1973 due to their innocence. A majority of exonerees – 71 – are African American. One of them, Earl Washington, Jr., was a prisoner on Virginia’s death row. Washington came within days of execution for a murder he did not commit. He was granted an absolute pardon in 2000 by then Governor James Gilmore when DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Beginning at 8 a.m. Pacific Time on July 18, Greer will navigate the extremely strong ocean current around Alcatraz – location of the former maximum-security prison nicknamed “The Rock” – and swim 1.5 miles to the East Beach of Crissy Field in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Presidio Park.
Undaunted by the rough, freezing waters, Greer looks forward to the challenge, which she first undertook 10 years ago. At that time, she completed the entire triathlon in less than four hours. This time she will only complete the swim. She trains by swimming five to seven miles a week in the Washington, D.C. area.
Perhaps Greer’s swim against Pacific Ocean tides will contribute to turning the public opinion “tide” against capital punishment, especially with respect to wrongful convictions and executions. It is already happening gradually. Seventy-three percent of respondents in a recent Rasmussen Reports opinion poll said they are concerned about innocent people executed by mistake, with 40 percent characterizing themselves as “very concerned.” The American Law Institute (ALI), the leading independent scholarly institute providing support for legal theories undergirding state criminal justice systems, removed the death penalty from its Model Penal Code, citing, among other things, the minimal safeguards against mistaken convictions and executions. Fewer juries are imposing death sentences in murder trials, and fewer prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in murder cases, due partly to concern about mistakenly executing an innocent person.

As is often noted in the death penalty abolition movement, one cannot free an innocent individual once that individual is executed. Greer’s swim serves to highlight this alarming flaw among the many comprising capital punishment.

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