Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Governors of Death

One of the ways that the modern death penalty allows governors to position themselves as the representatives of the people as victims, and their demand for security and vengeance against feared predators, is through powers that the governor has to start or stop the execution process.

The most famous of these powers, that of clemency, is rarely used (see Austin Sarat, Mercy on Trial: What it Takes to Stop an Execution). But the non-use, is itself as an exercise of power, one that governors can use to underscore their centrality to the execution that results.

Some states give governors an even more symbolically resonant gesture. Florida, for example, gives governors the power to initiate an execution by signing a death warrant (in other states that power is held by trial judges). Florida's new GOP gov, Charlie Crist (a hard crime warrior who was called Chain Gang Charlie during his legislative careers), signed a death warrant today on Mark Dean Schwab, a 38 year old for the 1992 rape and murder of an 11 year old boy. See the AP story on

This death warrant may provide the governor something of a bonus. Since it comes after a temporary moratorium declared by former governor Jeb Bush (a huge fan of the death penalty) in response to a botched lethal injection last year, Crist can claim to be a restorer of the death penalty (a role that is particularly powerful for governors, see Governing through Crime, Ch. 2).

Since it comes a time when the Florida Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the new lethal injection procedure it offers an opportunity either to have the Court stop the execution, in which case the contrast with the pro-death penalty, pro-victim governor will add to his power through frustrating it (something that happened repeatedly with Jeb Bush and the Florida Supreme Court of Bush v. Gore fame). Or, if the court refuses to halt the execution, the governor will have demonstrated that the court has been effectively shackled.

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