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Music Cues: Diallo
Scott Simon
February 26, 2001

Scott Simon commentary on Amadou Diallo

The attorneys for the four New York City police officers who have been acquitted in the death of Amadou Diallo called his killing a tragedy and a mistake -- but not a crime. Their arguments --and the evident grief of their clients-- were clearly persuasive to the jury.

But part of what pierces so many hearts this morning is the knowledge that an innocent man paid for that mistake with his life. Sometimes, the law applies lethal force.

There has been little national attention this week to the fact that in Florida and Texas, four people were put to death for committing murder. This number is really no longer news. In 1999, 98 people-- almost two a week-- were executed in the United States, the most of any year.

The circumstances and protestations of each person executed this week were different.

In Florida, forty year-old Anthony Bryan confessed that he killed night watchman George Wilson seventeen years ago, and apologized to Mr. Wilson's family. But 58 year-old Terry Melvin Sims went to his death insisting that he was innocent of killing Seminole County Sheriff George Pfiel in 1977.

In Texas, 62 year-old Betty Lou Beets was executed for killing her fifth husband 17 years ago. Mrs. Beets had previously been convicted of shooting and wounding her second husband, and charged but never tried for killing her fourth husband. She insisted this week that each man had beaten her.

But 38 year-old Cornelius Gross confessed to killing 66 year-old Carl Leevy during a burglary in 1987. He told members of Mr. Leevy's family who came to watch the lethal drugs flow through the needle in his arm, "I don't think I can say anything that will help, but I hope, through your God, you can forgive me. I am definately not the person now that I was then."

There are more executions than ever before in the United States; but it has not become a campaign issue. Each man running for president in the major parties supports capital punishment.

But when Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions early this year, after thirteen Death Row prisoners were demonstrated to be innocent, he said that the rate of mistakes the criminal justice system can make made an irreversible penalty like capital punishment unacceptable. Conservatives and liberals alike, he suggested, share an interest in limiting the absolute powers of government.

Rabbi Alan Lehman of Miami kept a vigil outside the prison in Starke, Florida this week and said that he does not believe that the biblical injunction of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth extends to a life for a life. "I don't know of any human court," he said, "that has the wisdom to be able to fairly apply capital punishment."