'Shop Talk': Death Penalty, GOP Debate
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Just ahead, most people want to do right by their loved ones when it comes time to say their final good-byes. But what if you've lost touch with the rituals of your faith? That's where the Shiva Sisters come in and we'll tell you about them in just a few minutes.
But first, it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds.
Sitting in their chairs for a shape-up this week are author Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Republican strategist Ron Christie and author and editor and civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar is doing a slow roll and he'll join us when he can. Take it away, Jimi.
JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas.
RON CHRISTIE: What's up?
IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop. How we doing?
RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Doing good.
IZRAEL: RC, my man, good to see you. The R.
NAVARRETTE: Hey, the R is in the house.
IZRAEL: In the house.
CHRISTIE: I'm here. I'm in New Mexico. Happy to join you.
IZRAEL: All right. Well, let's get it on. So up first, the controversial execution of Troy Davis. The Georgia death row inmate was executed this week for the 1989 shooting death of off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail.
Now, Davis maintained his innocence over the years and garnered thousands, thousands of supporters from Democratic and Republican congressmen to former presidents. Now, many of them argued his innocence due to lack of physical evidence, Michel.
MARTIN: Well, you know, I think I would edit that, Jimi, to say that, you know, I don't know that they were arguing that he was innocent. What they were arguing was that the state did not meet its burden. And when you're going to impose the ultimate penalty, that it is very important that the state meet its burden.
The critical argument here was that seven of the nine trial witnesses recanted their testimony. Several say that they had been coerced. I'll just give you a short clip of some of the flavor of what some of the discussion was around this.
Reverend Al Sharpton was outside the prison where Davis was executed and this is one of the things that he had to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
The Reverend AL SHARPTON: This is an egregious and outrageous miscarriage of justice. And we're here to say that. We're also here to begin a move to make sure that we make it illegal anywhere in this country for people to face a death sentence only based on eyewitness testimony.
IZRAEL: Oh, wow. Thanks for that, Michel. Now, Davis had his sentence carried out while the death sentence of Samuel David Crowe in Georgia, who actually admitted to killing a retail lumber manager, was commuted. So it's kind of an apples-to-apples comparison except Crowe admitted his guilt and Davis maintained his innocence until the last. Now - wow. Yeah.
MARTIN: So Ruben, what do you think about this?
NAVARRETTE: Is that the first time in recorded history that someone convicted of a crime has ever maintained his innocence?
IZRAEL: Your point is?
MARTIN: Yeah. What's the point?
NAVARRETTE: That's the point. As the son of a cop, as someone who has had various jobs in the criminal justice system in turn for district attorneys and the like over the time, it's not unusual for people who are even convicted of crimes to always say they didn't do it. That's not, you know, I just make that point.
I think the issue in Texas and the issue in this particular case is that there is kind of a worrisome, vengeful, bloodthirsty aspect to our politics as related to the death penalty. And it's very difficult sometimes to separate out the justice, if you want to call it that, of meting out the ultimate punishment in some cases.
I think the picture perfect poster boy for the death penalty in this country was Timothy McVeigh. If you take a look at what happened in Oklahoma City, if he didn't deserve the death penalty, nobody does.
And I have no problem in my support of the death penalty, but I will tell you this. Those five years I spent in Dallas, Texas really did have an impact on me in terms of watching a state that sometimes pushes this too far and sometimes mixes in issues of race, for instance, in the way that they coached jurors, in the way that prosecutors exclude jurors of certain backgrounds.
Texas is a whole different ballgame, and it's very worrisome. It's very troubling. You just do not execute record numbers of people like that unless somebody is cutting corners.
IZRAEL: What's that you say? Race matters? Clutch the pearls.
NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Shocking.
IZRAEL: RC, weigh in here.
CHRISTIE: You know, this case is very troubling in a number of aspects. For one, you know, as one of the lawyers in the group - and Arsalan will join us in a little bit. You have to say to yourself, can you not only convict, but can you execute someone based strictly on eyewitness testimony?
And the Supreme Court of the United States has ultimately ruled in this particular case that, yes, you can. I'm troubled by the fact that you have seven of the nine eyewitnesses who have either recanted their testimony or have indicated that they felt coached or coerced.
If that's the case, it seems to me that there should have been an additional review. There should have been an additional repeal and you should have put these folks right back on the stands to say specifically, how were you coerced? How were you coached? And is this a proper administration of justice or a travesty of it? So that's the aspect that I'm rather troubled by.
MARTIN: You know, Arsalan's here. I wanted to ask him a question here since you're the attorney in the group. Ron, are you an attorney, also? I forget.
CHRISTIE: I am.
MARTIN: You are an attorney, also, but...
IZRAEL: As he pops his collar. Go ahead.
MARTIN: As he pops his collar.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: But Arsalan, you know, you are a civil rights attorney by trade. One of the questions I had is this. Why didn't the court - the Supreme Court, at one point, did review this case, but they didn't order a new trial. Why not order a new trial?
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: They obviously felt as though, you know, there was a preponderance of evidence to allow, you know, even the seven of nine witnesses who recanted their statements. They felt that there was still, you know, a preponderance of evidence to uphold the conviction.
Now, I completely agree with Ron that, you know, seven out of nine - when 78 percent of the witnesses in the case have recanted their statements and even the two remaining witnesses, you know, a lot of their testimony was considered hearsay evidence, you know, I think it really does speak to the broken death penalty system that we have in the U.S.
MARTIN: There's only one thing I would like to say about the media in this case. This is one of those cases that got a lot of media attention. But one of the things that disturbs me about cases like this is the narrative line, at some point, inevitably turns to kind of the worthiness of the accused's life versus the worthiness of the victim's life. And the victim's life was indeed worthy, but that isn't the question. You know, that isn't the issue.
And how much his family suffered at his loss, which of course, you know, they've suffered and certainly as, you know - Ruben, I just want to, you know, I have many police officers in my family. And, of course, every time they walk out the door, you're hoping that they will come back, whether they're working on duty or whether they're working in security or anything, you know, of that sort.
But to continually sort of press this line about kind of the worthiness of the victims, that has nothing to do with whether the person who is accused is indeed responsible. And so, that's the piece I just wish that - I just don't understand why the media continues with this sort of - this trope in this kind of false equivalency. It just - go ahead.
IZRAEL: Michel, you know, the thing that troubles me - and I'm not going to win any fans by saying this. But it's the idea that, you know, people are ranting and raving. Oh, the system's racist. The system's racist. Really? Water's still wet.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
IZRAEL: Now, as far as I know, you know, if you know the system's racist, you stay out of the system. If you're rolling with some cats and all of a sudden a beef breaks out and one of them starts shooting, guess what? It's time to change your plans for that evening. It's not time to keep rolling with them to see what other kind of mischief they're going to get you into. You know what I'm saying?
IFTIKHAR: And Jimi, yeah.
IZRAEL: So you want to say, hold on a second. If you want to stay out of the - if you don't want to be in a system which you know is racist from jump, don't get in the system. It seems reasonable to me, so I don't know. And like I said, I'm not going to win me any fans, but that's just how I feel about it.
MARTIN: No, no. I think that's a point worth saying, but that doesn't change the fact that in the United States, there is a system of justice that places the burden of proof on the government. And if the government's going to impose - that is the issue at stake here.
IFTIKHAR: Well, and also, you know, in the case of Georgia, you know, they have a five-member panel that decides on whether or not to grant clemency. And out of the five - two out of the five, including the chairman, are African-American. And so, you know, again, I think here, it's more about the brokenness of the system.
I mean, we're really the only country in the Western industrialized world that still has the death penalty. You know, most of Western Europe has, you know, completely abolished it, you know, as of 1981. And so, I think it really goes to looking at the systemic failures of our death penalty experiment here in the United States.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
And you're listening to our weekly Barbershop segment. We're joined by author Jimi Izrael, syndicated columnist Ruben Navarrette, Republican strategist Ron Christie, and Arsalan Iftikhar decided to join us. We're so glad. So back to you, Jimi.
IZRAEL: Thanks. Well, the death penalty came up again at the GOP debates in Orlando. While 34 of the 50 states still have the death penalty, the great state of Texas has performed the most. Two hundred and thirty six of those occurred under Rick Perry's governorship, Michel.
MARTIN: Yeah. I just want to know what you all think about this. Rick Perry - the audience that he was before last night, that wasn't exactly a problem for them. I think that has to be said.
But it was a very interesting debate in terms of what got people's attention and how they played to that particular audience. Rick Perry was under fire from fellow candidates last night. He and Mitt Romney were sparring. And I'll just play a couple of clips just to give you a sense of kind of the atmosphere there. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)
Governor RICK PERRY: I think Americans just don't know sometimes which Mitt Romney they're dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it before he was before the social programs from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade?
MITT ROMNEY: There's a Rick Perry out there that sang that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional. Unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states. So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.
MARTIN: See, Rick Perry and I must be having the same day in terms of getting our words out.
NAVARRETTE: (Unintelligible) Mitt Romney and his folks. Yeah, exactly right. Both of them.
MARTIN: I know. We must have gotten our Dunkin Donuts coffee at the same shop, right? That's how I put it.
NAVARRETTE: Well, Mitt Romney, too. I mean, Lord, help these people.
IZRAEL: Ruben, more?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I think that this issue - I mean, it's a way of getting at the frontrunner, you know, going after him on various aspects of it. I don't think the death penalty thing is a fair charge against Perry because having lived, again, in Texas, I can't tell you the number of times we would sit down for candidate interviews for people who came down to the Dallas Morning News editorial board for an endorsement and they were running for judge.
And they made it very prominent in their literature and what they told us that they supported the death penalty. It was almost a sick contest in terms of how enthusiastic they could be for the death penalty and many of those people were Democrats. Understand this. In Texas, Democrats are just as much in favor of the death penalty as Republicans. It's not a blue thing or a red thing. It's a Texas thing.
MARTIN: OK. Well, Ron, tell me what you think happened in this debate. Do you feel that we got anywhere with sort of seeing what the candidates really stand for? What do you think?
CHRISTIE: Well, I tell you, I think these debates are happening way too early. You know, everyone's already got the horse race out and who's winning, who's losing. I thought Governor Romney looked good last night. He didn't have any major gaffs.
I thought Governor Perry's folks were probably wishing that the debate was one hour in length as opposed to two. It looked like Perry was a little bored. He looked like he lost some steam in the second hour.
And, frankly, if you're going to make a horse race of this, it's who's running for third place? And in my book, I think Senator Rick Santorum, frankly, outshone the rest of the field, you know, other than, obviously, the top two tier candidates. And at this point, it's who can edge out the other candidates on the stage to start raising a little bit more money to stay viable for the next several months?
MARTIN: Well, isn't it really a race for vice president at this point with the rest of the tier? I mean, really.
CHRISTIE: Oh, I don't know.
MARTIN: You don't think so?
CHRISTIE: I think Tim Pawlenty - well, I think there's merit to what you had to say, but I think Tim Pawlenty, for getting out as early as he did and endorsing Romney as quickly as he did, thought, hey, I'm going to start the sweepstakes. I want to be the first guy to be considered.
IFTIKHAR: Right, right.
NAVARRETTE: Well, and you know, for me, what's interesting to know with the whole, you know, GOP field is, you know, this whole concept of a horse race. I think it's actually more important, right now at least, like Ron said, you know, it's so early in the race. I think it's actually more important to be, you know, the second horse in the race right now as opposed to the frontrunner. Because I think that, you know, as long as Rick Perry can just keep, like, a nose length behind Romney, he'll be able to take...
CHRISTIE: In front of Romney.
NAVARRETTE: No, no, behind Romney. I mean, in terms of the establishment candidate. I think when you get to the home stretch, that's when Perry will be able to, you know, go forward. It's interesting when he talks about Romney being this before, being that. You know, most people forget that Rick Perry was a Democrat before he was a Republican, so...
NAVARRETTE: ...that's something...
MARTIN: Well, while we're talking about this whole question of, you know, can't cross the finish line...
MARTIN: Well, not a presidential candidate, Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman from Florida on hosted MSNBC's hit morning show. It's called "Morning Joe" wrote this column for Politico that got a lot of attention comparing President Obama to LeBron James. He says the president always switched to the side of the court when his teammates need him most. He says that President Obama allowed former Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to carry the heavy load on health care reform.
The data's not new, but this comparison to - of sort of Obama to LeBron seems to have kind of stung in a way. Does that sound right to you? I mean, Jimi, what do you think? You're the Cleveland man. What do you think?
MARTIN: Does that resonate? And why do you think it's sort of - that charge seems to be getting its attraction.
IFTIKHAR: It does. It does.
IZRAEL: I think that thesis is flawed because it - I don't know, I don't dig it. It doesn't go anywhere for me. You know, Barack Obama reminds me more of the Harlem Globetrotter. He's kind of a lot of show, a lot of rhetorical backspins. But, you know, he's hard pressed to make any game changing decision at the point when faced with any real opposition. I think that comparison is more apropos than comparing him to LeBron James. LeBron, you know - Joe should stay in his lane on this one.
MARTIN: OK. Arsalan's like, excuse me. Go ahead.
IFTIKHAR: No. I think, you know, for once, Joe Scarborough is right. You know, I think that both - if you look at LeBron James from the NBA perspective, Barack Obama from the political perspective, you know, they're both seen as forces of nature, you know, that would be able to, you know, completely change paradigms. And I think that both of them have sort of been weighed under their inability to, quote, unquote, "win."
You know, LBJ, you know, with his inability to beat the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals when everybody thinks that he's the greatest player on the planet. I think, similarly, you know, because Barack Obama, you know, has really been unable to win in so many different regards, I think he's been sort of, you know, weighed under like LeBron, you know, in terms of his own greatness and his own inability to win.
CHRISTIE: And don't forget, fellows, don't forget that the LeBron comparison came from one Senator Barack Obama himself. If you believe the book, "Game Change" written by Mark Halperin, he allegedly said during the 2004 Democratic presidential convention - he said to Harry Reid, hey, baby, I'm like LeBron. I got game. So I just think that Scarborough was remembering, you know, back what Senator Obama - comparing himself to LeBron James.
NAVARRETTE: I think it's a silly comparison and I think that LeBron James is going to have a much longer career than Barack Obama.
MARTIN: OK. Well, we have it on tape. We will be playing this for you.
NAVARRETTE: In November 2012, baby.
MARTIN: Well, we got it on tape. We will see.
NAVARRETTE: All right.
MARTIN: Jimi Izrael is a freelance journalist and author of the book, "The Denzel Principle." He was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist who writes for The Washington Post Writers' Group, Latino magazine and Pajamas Media. He was with us from member station KANW in Albuquerque.
Ron Christie is a Republican strategist, a former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. He was with us from Boston. And Arsalan Iftikhar is a civil rights attorney. He's author of the newly released book, "Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era." And he was here with us in Washington, D.C. Thanks, everybody.
IZRAEL: Peace out.
NAVARRETTE: Thank you.
IZRAEL: Yup, yup. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.