On 20th Anniversary, Death Penalty Popular, Unsettling
Jul. 02, 1996
PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Few know the name of Troy Leon Gregg, but 20 years ago today it was his case that returned the death penalty to the United States.
On July 2, 1976, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia's right to execute Gregg, a 27-year-old drifter who shot to death two Florida men after they picked him up hitchhiking.
The ruling ended a ban on capital punishment put in place four years earlier when the high court found the death penalty was too random and arbitrary in its application. In a disturbing number of cases, the justices found, skin color might have made the difference.
Since then, 331 people have been executed in the United States, and more than 3,000 inmates are on death row. Capital punishment is legal in 38 states and is so popular (as high as 80 percent in some polls) that politicians rarely question whether it is humane, fair or a deterrent to crime.
Among prosecutors and defense lawyers, convicts and victims, a passionate and sometimes deeply personal battle is waged every day over the government's right to kill.
``People are tired of running away from their neighborhoods. They're tired of little girls raped and murdered and dumped in the bushes. And they're tired of whining, complaining criminals.'' _ Philadelphia's Lynne Abraham, dubbed ``America's Deadliest D.A.''
Since she became district attorney five years ago, Abraham has asked for the death penalty every chance the law allows.
Philadelphia has put 111 people on death row, more than entire states. Only Los Angeles and Houston's Harris County, which have far more murders, have sentenced more people to die.
``It's just retribution,'' Abraham said. ``If you commit the ultimate crime, you pay the ultimate price, just like St. Thomas Aquinas said.''
Abraham is not moved by complaints that too many poor minorities get the death penalty. In Philadelphia, they are the ones who commit most of the crimes, Abraham said.
``It's just not common in this country that millionaires commit murder,'' she said. ``Do you let a poor person off just because of his income?''
If people have problems with capital punishment, Abraham said, the answer is refinement, not abolition. On the issue of deterrence, she is blunt: ``When you are dead, you will no longer kill.''
``I had never been arrested for anything in my life. I had an honorable discharge. I had a new wife. And suddenly I was fighting for my life, and no one believed me.'' _ Former death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth.
In 1985 in Maryland, Bloodsworth was convicted of raping and murdering 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton.
He was arrested after someone spotted a police drawing of the killer and anonymously called to say it resembled the 23-year-old ex-Marine. Witnesses, shown a police photo of Bloodsworth, picked him out of a lineup.
At trial he had an alibi, but the jury did not believe it. He was ordered to die by injection.
His lawyer stayed with the case. He discovered an FBI report that mentioned an unidentified splotch on Dawn's underwear. DNA testing showed the stain was semen _ and it wasn't Bloodsworth's. Bloodsworth was innocent.
He was freed in 1993 after nine years and is now an activist for death row inmates.
Since his conviction, executions have been speeded up. With appeals, it used to take eight years or more. Now it takes about four, and proposed legislation could cut it to two.
Had he been convicted today, he probably would have been executed by the time he was proved innocent.
``I was branded as the most evil thing in the world _ a child killer and a child rapist,'' Bloodsworth said. ``You should be looking at a corpse right now _ an innocent corpse.''
``Some people would ask for 10 minutes alone in a room with a killer. ... Others would ask he suffer torture and agony for days. But we as a country set up rules and lawyers, as a means of moderation.'' _ Jane Brady, Delaware attorney general.
Brady is unfazed when a defense lawyer friend asks her, ``What would Jesus Christ say if he were asked about the death penalty?''
``It's simply a misconception to believe that if you support the death penalty, you're evil and cynical, and if you're against it, you're compassionate and loving,'' she told a panel of death penalty foes recently.
Brady firmly believes extreme penalties are necessary in extreme cases.
``I could tell you about widows so racked with grief they couldn't walk out of my office. I could tell you about the children I've seen in the morgue,'' she said.
For Brady, the debate over deterrence is unimportant.
``This is simply civilized society's response to actions which exceed our sensibilities,'' she said.
``I've always known this day was coming. But who believes, warden? Who really believes?'' _ Inmate Connie Ray Evans to his friend, warden Don Cabana, during Evans' death countdown.
Cabana is a Vietnam veteran who ran one of the toughest prisons in the nation. Starting at the bottom as a mounted guard riding shotgun over field workers, Cabana worked his way up to warden of Mississippi State Prison.
He nonetheless went from supporting capital punishment to condemning it.
``I thought of it as a necessary evil for certain very bad people. After a quarter-century of watching inmates hurt each other, trying to stab you, shoot you _ it tends to harden your views,'' said Cabana, 50.
But he was haunted by the words of a condemned man just before his execution. He said: ``Warden, you're about to become a murderer. I'm innocent _ and dear God, I can't make anybody believe me.''
``Walking home at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, I thought hard about what he said. Usually, they apologize to victims _ give some sign of guilt or regret _ but not this one,'' Cabana said. ``I still hope to this day he was lying.''
Then came Connie Ray Evans, a 26-year-old black man from the Deep South who robbed a convenience store and shot a clerk.
``He was a quiet fellow, kind of shy, with a good sense of humor. We talked basketball, played checkers, got to know about each other,'' Cabana said.
``He had no explanation for why he did something that dumb. He told me, `Didn't nobody but Connie Ray Evans put Connie Ray Evans here. I just wish I knew why.' He never expected to walk again among free people. He just wanted a second chance at life within prison walls.''
On July 7, 1987, Evans was gassed. The execution was Cabana's second that month _ and his last. He transferred to another prison without a death unit and resigned from corrections shortly after that.
Today, he teaches criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi.
He tells students, ``It has been said that men on death row are inhuman, coldblooded killers. But as I stood and watched a grieving mother leave her son for the last time, I questioned how the sordid business of executions was supposed to be the great equalizer.
``If Connie Ray Evans was some awful monster deemed worth of extermination, why do I feel so bad about it?''