Wednesday, August 10, 2005

'History is the memory of democracy'

It has been said that the death penalty needs to be relegated to the dustbin of history. The following interesting development would seem to be a step in that direction -- a new archive dedicated to studying the history of the death penalty in the U.S.

Papers shed light on dark fate

UAlbany opens archive that chronicles the history of capital punishment in U.S.

ALBANY -- Since colonial times, 20,000 people have been executed in this country.
For the first time, though, an archive of documents chronicling the ultimate punishment is now available to historians and others.

More than 1 million items are contained in the National Death Penalty Archive, which opened Tuesday at the University at Albany. The school's M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives will house the documents.

"There is no other repository in the country, or even the world, to our knowledge, that is dedicated to the history of capital punishment in America," said James Acker, a UAlbany criminal justice professor who is co-director of the school's Capital Punishment Research Initiative, which organized the archive.

Some of the works are academic, others long-forgotten transcripts and newsletters. But many of the materials are rich personal exchanges: an audio history of 1,200 interviews that Northeastern University professor William Bowers conducted with jurors who sat on death penalty cases, for instance, or correspondence from Alvin Ford, a cop killer who plunged into schizophrenia and died on death row before he could be executed.

"Please sign my death warrant," Ford wrote by hand to Florida Gov. Bob Martinez in a 1989 letter. "I'm dropping all my appeals."

Ford's case led the U.S. Supreme Court to bar states from executing the insane.

"The reason that this is important is, history is the memory of democracy," said UAlbany President Kermit Hall, in opening the archive, which fills hundreds of boxes. Hall is a legal historian.

He said that the growing use of technology to exonerate suspects -- or convicts -- is changing the nature of how capital punishment is used.

Acker agreed. "This seems to be a potentially very important time of change in capital punishment in this country," he said. "Many, many questions are being raised."

About two-thirds of the documents in the archive argue against the death penalty, Acker said. But he said the goal is to present an objective history, regardless.

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