EU Takes Its Activism Seriously

§ August 31st, 2015 § Filed under Uncategorized § No Comments

eutakesitsIn February, representatives of the EU presidency presented a demarche to US Undersecretary of State for Human Rights Frank Loy, outlining special concerns regarding certain executions carried out in the United States. These include cases involving individuals who were younger than eighteen years old when they committed their crimes, those who suffer from mental illness, and those who were unable to prove their innocence due to the lack of adequate legal assistance. As of last month, EU representatives had appealed for the commutation of eleven such death sentences, eight in Texas, two in Virginia, and one in Georgia.

The EU presidency followed the demarche with an appeal to state governors, asking them to emulate the example of Illinois Governor George Ryan, who imposed a moratorium on the use of capital punishment after questions arose over the guilt of some Illinois death row inmates. In its letter, the EU pointed out that “while more than 600 people have been executed [in the US] since the reinstatement of the penalty in 1976, as many as eighty-one people in twenty-one states have been found innocent and removed from death row.” Such instances, they emphasized, reflect the inherent risk attached to carrying out a punishment that cannot be reversed.

In July, Ambassador Francois Bujon de l’Estang of France, representing the EU presidency, wrote to President Clinton asking him to intervene in the case of Juan Raul Garza, who was convicted in a federal court of drug smuggling and murder and sentenced to death. Bujon de l’Estang noted that “no federal executions have taken place since 1963.” He urged Clinton “to make a decision that sets an example” and commute the sentence to life in prison.

On August 2, Clinton granted Garza, one of twenty-two federal death row inmates, a temporary reprieve until December 12, allowing the condemned man to apply for presidential clemency under new guidelines recently set by the Justice Department.

In August, representatives of the EU presidency also called on Texas Governor George W. Bush to spare the life of Oliver David Cruz, who, his lawyers claimed, was mentally retarded. Cruz had been sentenced to death for the 1988 abduction, rape, and fatal stabbing of twenty-four-year-old Kelly Elizabeth Donovan, who was serving in the US Air Force in San Antonio.

Lawyers for Cruz argued that he possessed an IQ of sixty-four, six points below the level regarded by many health care professionals as mentally retarded. Prosecutors countered that tests in prison showed Cruz to have an IQ of eighty-three.

In their letter to Bush, EU officials cited a 1989 UN resolution that “recommends that United Nations member states eliminate the death penalty for persons suffering from mental retardation or extremely limited mental competence, whether at the stage of sentence or execution.” The officials wrote that the EU “considers that the execution of Mr. Cruz would be contrary to these generally accepted human rights norms.”

According to Texas law, the governor can only commute a death sentence on the recommendation of a majority of the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles. He can, however, grant a one-time, thirty-day delay of the execution. With Bush campaigning for the presidency in California, Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry was empowered to perform the governor’s duties and declined to delay Cruz’s execution.

Through his gubernatorial communications office, Bush said he agreed with Perry’s decision. “The jury heard extensive evidence regarding the mental capacity of Oliver David Cruz and agreed that his vicious and calculated crime warranted a sentence of death,” said Linda Edwards, the governor’s communications director.

After apologizing to the victim’s family from the death chamber, Cruz was executed by lethal injection on August 9.

A month later, the state of Virginia’s scheduled execution of Derek Rocco Barnabei, a US citizen who was half Italian, provoked European headlines. The EU appealed to Virginia Governor James Gilmore on behalf of Barnabei, who was convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of Sarah Wisnosky, a seventeen-year-old freshman at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

Barnabei’s family and lawyers mounted a widespread publicity campaign, which prompted protests by some members of Italy’s Olumpic team during the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Games as well as from several Italian politicians, Nobel laureate Dario Fo, and Pope John Paul II. Crowds gathered in Rome to rally against capital punishment and call for clemency for Barnabei.

European Parliament President Nicole Fontaine presented an open letter to the people of the United States forty-eight hours before Barnabei was to be executed. In it she stated that “the vast majority” of the 370 million Europeans represented by the Parliament “cannot understand why the United States is the only major democratic state in the world that carries out the death penalty.” She went on to say that Barnabei’s case had “given rise to particularly strong reactions in Europe because there were…doubts about his guilt and because, while he is an American citizen, his family originally came from Italy.”

Representatives of the EU presidency sent a letter to Governor Gilmore stating that Barnabei’s case “raised many serious questions when scrutinized under the international standards governing the use of capital punishment.” They appealed for Gilmore to commute Barnabei’s sentence to “any penalty other than capital punishment.”

The governor’s office responded with a copy of a press statement in which Gilmore detailed his final considerations of the case, including his oversight of a last-minute DNA test requested by Barnabei and his lawyers. The governor said the test, which analyzed DNA found on the fingernails of the victim, provided conclusive evidence Barnabei had raped and murdered Wisnosky. “Now that the guilt of Barnabei has been confirmed,” concluded Gilmore, “there remains the generalized assault on capital punishment by many in this country and foreign countries. I believe we are entitled to set a moral standard that violent murder will not be tolerated by civilized people.”

Barnabei was executed by lethal injection on September 14. “I am truly innocent of this crime,” he said in his final statement. “Eventually, the truth will come out.”

Of the eleven condemned inmates for whom the EU has intervened so far this year, Garza is the only one who is still alive. Nevertheless, European officials say they remain undaunted and will keep pressing the case against the death penalty in the United States, continuing the campaign begun by Cesare Beccaria.

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