It’s nothing personal

I’m reminded of a story Tip O’Neill told. Alarmed that Ronald Reagan’s proposed budget cuts would deprive worthy students of college loans, the House speaker went to the president with a particularly compelling story about one young woman’s circumstance. Reagan listened intently, then called for an aide and said surely he could get the girl some help. A frustrated O’Neill said no, Mr. President, I was trying to make a point about how your policy affects millions of such young people.

America vs. Human Rights

“The United States has long regarded itself as a beacon of human rights, as evidenced by an enlightened constitution, judicial independence, and a civil society grounded in strong traditions of free speech and press freedom. But the reality is more complex; for decades, civil rights and civil liberties groups have exposed constitutional violations and challenged abusive policies and practices. In recent years, as well, international human rights monitors have documented serious gaps in U.S. protections of the human rights of vulnerable groups. Both federal and state governments have nonetheless resisted applying to the U.S. the standards that, rightly, the U.S. applies elsewhere.”
Human Rights Watch

Reagan was compassionate personally, but insensitive on public policy. So it seems with Gov. Mike Huckabee.

Willie Way was 16 in 1974 when he walked into a grocery store and shot the owner twice in the chest and killed him. He got convicted of first-degree murder and went to work as a trusty at the Governor’s Mansion.

Charles Singleton was 19 in 1979 when he walked into a grocery store and stabbed the owner to death. He got convicted of capital murder and went crazy.

Huckabee granted clemency to the trusty in 2001. He let the crazy man get put to death Tuesday night.

Then there’s James Maxwell. He shot and killed a Church of God preacher in 1979 after he stole the preacher’s car. He got a life sentence and went to work as a trusty at the Governor’s Mansion. He also professed to a Christian conversion. Huckabee reduced Maxwell’s sentence and made him eligible for parole, which he got in 2003.

It seems that if Huckabee gets to know you at the Governor’s Mansion, he’ll help you. But if he doesn’t know you, he’ll maintain indifference even if the state medicates you so that you will be sufficiently sane to meet a legal standard of knowing what’s happening when you get put to death.

Singleton was too mentally ill to be a trusty. He was too nuts to profess credibly to being born-again. So we killed him.

Huckabee told me in a brief visit Wednesday at the Governor’s Mansion that the cases are different. He said Way and Maxwell had built records of rehabilitation before qualifying for the Mansion assignment that let him make their acquaintance. He gave them leniency on the basis of those records, not personal affinity, he said.

Barring such records, he said, he requires extraordinary evidentiary information before he will use his last-resort powers to alter the courts’ judgment in a capital case. Huckabee said the only curious circumstance in Singleton’s case was that he had at times been involuntarily medicated for psychosis. He said his understanding of mental health treatment was that mentally ill people under medication should be treated as sane and competent. That’s all he was doing in Singleton’s case, he said. It was the courts, not he, who gave Singleton death, Huckabee said.

I mentioned that the federal appeals court vote was 6-to-5. He said Roe v. Wade was divided, too.

Huckabee said he found it odd that “people on the left” criticize him in a political race for granting too many commutations, then implore him to grant another after he gets elected; that people who opposed his election because of fear of his exercising religious faith in office turn around and plead with him to take an official action based on that very faith.

He also advanced the point that Singleton had not exhibited mental illness at the time of his crime. I countered that Maxwell had not exhibited Christian rebirth at the time he shot a preacher.

The real point is the essential impracticality and unfairness of the death penalty as we apply it.

Three guys commit similarly brutal killings. Two get convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Another, possessed perhaps of less able legal representation or unlucky enough to have a tough jury, gets the death penalty.

All three men experience life’s evolution. Two get good work for the governor. One of those professes to embrace the Lord. The third goes certifiably insane. The first two go free. The crazy man dies at our hands.

John Brummett is a columnist and reporter for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock.

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