September 22, 1997
Volume 50, No. 5
Former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers joined five other panelists Sept. 16 for a debate on capital punishment at the School of Law organized by the Atlanta lawyers' chapter of the Federalist Society.
Bowers, who currently is campaigning for governor, was flanked by Mary Beth Westmoreland, deputy attorney general in the capital section, and Kent Scheidigger, executive director of the California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, in arguing for the death penalty.
Arguing against capital punishment were Stephen Bright, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, Michael Mears, multicounty public defender and former mayor of Decatur, and Greg Smith, a staff attorney with the Federal Defender Program. Each of the participants gave a 15-minute address, then moderator John Malcolm opened the floor for questions from the audience.
"For some crimes," Bowers began in his defense of executions, "there is simply no other penalty that's appropriate. Is the process perfect? Absolutely not. But it is the people of this state exercising their right of self-government, and I for one would not want to be party to depriving them of that ability, even if they're wrong."
"The death penalty brings out the dark side of the human spirit," Bright countered. "I see people taking their children down to Jackson [Ga.] for an execution, celebrating alongside the Ku Klux Klan and others the murder of another child of God."
The advocates of capital punishment stressed the consitutionality of the penalty and public opinion polls that show a majority of Georgians in favor of it. The opponents countered that the United States is one of seven countries worldwide that still executes state prisoners along with such nations as Iraq, Iran and China. They also presented statistics that an inordinate number of death row inmates are African-American men.
Smith stated that 46 percent of death row inmates are black, and more than half are people of color. Thirty-nine percent of those executed are black, and 83 percent of executed blacks were convicted of murdering white people, while only 12 percent were convicted of murdering blacks.
"The death penalty at its very core is racist and used against poor people," Mears said. "I've grown up in the South where the death penalty has been a way of life, and I've seen it used in ways that would make anyone with an ounce of human sensitivity cringe."
"I've heard the accusations of racism-you can take statistics to mean most anything you want them to mean," Westmoreland said. "But the people in this state favor the death penalty as a method of punishment. It does reflect the values of the community and of the 12 people sitting in the jury box."
Speaking in response to opponents' claims that capital punishment is not a deterrent to murder, Scheidigger said, "Think about a rapist. If he kills his victim, he greatly reduces his chance of being caught and convicted. If there is no threat of the death penalty, he's thinking about [if he's caught] a long versus longer prison term. And you're saying that the death penalty is not a deterrent in that situation? That's a pretty fantastical claim, and I would say the burden of proof is on the person who claims that."
The debate was not without humor. Speaking just before Bowers, Bright said, "If I could be a warm-up to Michael Bowers every time for the next year, it would be a very interesting race for governor."
Bowers responded, "I would welcome Mr. Bright as my front man. I think that would virtually guarantee my election."
But later in Bright's speech, he said Bowers, in a conversation with former Gov. Joe Frank Harris in 1987, had advocated post-conviction defenders organizations to provide death row inmates with legal representation and resources. "Didn't you say that, Mike?" Bright asked.
"You're talking," Bowers said, stone-faced.
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