Catfood and Circuses: A Federal Death Penalty Extravaganza

As we advocate for a budget balanced by the time-honored expedient of
reasonably progressive income tax rates for those in the highest
brackets rather than a menu of premium cuisine for the “fat cats” and
catfood for the rest of us, the Department of Justice is continuing a
Bush-era mode of truly extravagant spending: the federal death penalty.

This spending becomes especially gratuitous, as well as often futile,
when the federal government disregards a community’s own values and
policies by seeking the death penalty in jurisdictions like the State
of New York which do not themselves practice judicial homicide:

As reported by the _New York Times_ and the Death Penalty Information
Center, the federal government may end up spending $10 million on the
capital murder trial of already convicted racketeer and murderer
Vincent Basciano, presently under a sentence of life without
possibility of parole. He was so sentenced in 2008 for the killing of
Frank Santoro, evidently his response to hearing a rumor that Santoro
planned to kidnap Basciano’s son.

Mob boss Joseph C. Massino broke the code of silence and implicated
Basciano in another murder: the 2004 killing of Basciano’s associate
Randolph Pizzolo, which he allegedly ordered. Massino is not exactly a
stranger to homicide himself, having been convicted of seven murders
and pled guilty to an eighth.

When the Government decided to seek the death penalty, Federal
District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis wisely urged Attorney General Eric
Holder to reconsider this decision: “Basciano is already sentenced to
life imprisonment. He is designated to serve his sentence under
extremely restrictive conditions in one of the nation’s most secure
penal institutions.”

That penal institution is ADX Florence in Colorado, a federal
“supermax” prison showing how the state of the art has advanced since
my childhood half a century ago, when Alcatraz was the byword for an
“escape-proof” institution. The security arrangements are designed to
accommodate the most dangerous federal offenders, including mobsters
and terrorists.

Instead of taking the hint from Judge Garaufis, however, the Attorney
General responded by confirming the Government’s decision to seek the
death penalty, thus leading to a most telling headline in the _New
York Daily News_: “Attorney General Eric Holder wants former Bonnano
crime boss Vincent (Vinny Gorgeous) Basciano dead.”

Indeed the death penalty is a “Contract on America” in the grimmest
sense. bringing our Attorney General and President as well as the rest
of us down to the homicidal level of the criminals we are
prosecuting. At the same time, it’s a contract on us all, because
spending millions on the trial and appellate processes to kill one
prisoner, where a prosecution seeking and imposing a sentence of
permanent imprisonment would be much less expensive even with the
costs of lifelong incarceration figured in, is leading us to fiscal
and moral bankruptcy.

This process becomes especially wasteful, as well as offensive, when
the federal government seeks the death penalty in a state like New
York, which effectively abolished capital punishment when the highest
state court, the Court of Appeals, ruled the existing statute
unconstitutional in 2004, and the Legislature declined to repair or
replace it. Since then, three states have expressly abolished the
death penalty: New Jersey in 2007; New Mexico in 2009; and, just last
month, Illinois. In all, 16 states plus the District of Columbia now
have no death penalty; but federal death penalty prosecutions, like a
morally corrosive acid rain, can still invade these jurisdictions.

Such prosecutions seem especially wasteful because the task at hand,
challenging enough in death penalty states, may be even more daunting
(and prohibitively expensive) in a non-death-penalty jurisdiction:
first selecting a jury willing to consider the death penalty, and then
convincing them at the end of the day to impose it on the human being
set before them. Most federal capital trials where the defendant is
convicted actually end with a penalty verdict of life imprisonment,
and this outcome seems yet more likely in a jurisdiction which itself
has rejected capital punishment.

While the Clinton Administration tragically took part in the
bipartisan process of passing the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994,
which vastly expanded the range of federal capital offenses to include
various types of murder traditionally tried in state court, for
example a killing in the course of a carjacking or by drive-by
shooting, it showed restraint on the question of federal death
penalty prosecutions in non-death penalty jurisdictions.

In contrast, during the presidency of George W. Bush, who as Governor
of Texas had already achieved international notice as a serial
executioner by presiding over 151 lethal injections, such prosecutions
became high-profile and aggressive as one aspect of a campaign more
generally to seek the federal death penalty early and often. We may
recall the scandal over the politically motivated firings of eight
United States attorneys, with insufficient enthusiasm for seeking the
death penalty as one major factor.

Sadly, the Obama Administration’s conduct in cases like that of
Vincent Basciano is still leaning in a Bush-league direction, an
ironic course of policy for a nation aspiring to moral leadership in a
world where the death penalty is more and more clearly viewed as a
fundamental human rights violation.

According to Amnesty International, 96 countries have now abolished
the death penalty for all crimes, while nine retain it only for
“extraordinary” crimes such as wartime offenses or genocide, and
another 34 have become “abolitionist in practice” by observing
official or unofficial moratoria on executions.

The United Nations itself, in General Assembly Resolution A/RES/62/149
(2007), has called for a global moratorium on executions with a view
to abolition.

Thus many countries will not extradite prisoners who face capital
charges in the U.S.A. unless assurances are given that the death
penalty will not be sought or carried out, and likewise will not share
evidence or otherwise cooperate in prosecutions for terrorism which
could lead to an execution.

Beyond these international consequences, however, there is the impact
of exorbitantly wasteful federal spending for death penalty sideshows
on our quality of life and sense of priorities, an impact which,
coupled with the general maldistribution of income in our nation,
confronts us with a grim spectacle of catfood and circuses.

Margo Schulter
April 18, 2011

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