Monday, December 19, 2005

Breakthrough: death penalty debate permeates the blogosphere!

National Journal blogger Daniel Glover has written an interesting post about people blogging about the death penalty, particularly in light of the Stanley Tookie Williams and Cory Maye cases. He takes note of groups that are blogging on the death penalty, including Amnesty International, Campaign to End the Death Penalty and NCADP. He also notes some of the NCADP affiliates that have launched their own blogs. I'm putting his entire post here because I think it represents a breakthrough -- this is the first story that has been written like this:

December 19, 2005
A Tale Of Two Killers

Cory Maye of Mississippi and Stanley "Tookie" Williams of California had two very different pasts before they landed on death row -- Williams in 1981 and Maye in 2004.
Maye had no criminal record before killing a policeman who had burst into his home without a warrant. Williams, on the other hand, was a founder of the infamous Crips street gang, convicted of killing four people in two crimes.

But now the two have one more thing besides their criminal sentences in common: Each has become a focal point of renewed debate about capital punishment -- a debate being driven in large part by bloggers.

Blogging about the death penalty, and particularly against it, is not a new idea. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has been at it for 18 months, and Amnesty International launched Death Penalty Blog in July. Some state affiliates of NCADP, including those in Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee, also publish blogs.

After the national branch in October discussed Internet activism at its annual conference, NCADP blogger David Elliot posted three entries on blogging about the death penalty. "To me, it's about encouraging each other, building community, exchanging ideas, sharing what works and what doesn't," he wrote. "Taking new messages and trying them out for a spin. Doing new things."

Blogs with broader content also cover the death penalty periodically, especially when it is in the mainstream media mix. But until last month, as the nation neared its 1,000th execution since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, the topic had not reached critical mass in the blogosphere.

Then came Tookie Williams and Cory Maye.

Williams rose to celebrity status first. "While in jail, he became an anti-gang activist, wrote children's books and was nominated by a member of the Swiss Parliament for the Nobel Prize," TalkLeft noted last month in encouraging its readers to sign a petition urging clemency for Williams.

His story spurred numerous sympathetic appeals from bloggers, as well as outrage at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., for refusing clemency.

But the facts of Williams' life before prison, plus his repeated denials of committing the murders for which he was convicted, only served to heighten the longstanding divide over the death penalty. Abolitionists and the law-and-order crowd highlighted each other's excesses.

Firmly in the law-and-order group, Michelle Malkin posted several entries under "The Tookie Files." Both she and Patterico of Patterico's Pontifications emphasized the fate of Williams' victims: Albert Owens, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Ye-Chen Lin.

"Tonight should be about honoring their memory and bringing justice for their deaths," Patterico wrote before Williams was executed Tuesday.

Even bloggers who oppose the death penalty, including both conservative Ed Morrissey of Captain's Quarters and liberal Duncan Black of Eschaton, had qualms about rallying around Williams.

Quite the opposite is true with Maye. His case is the subject of a blog swarm encompassing both the left and the right.

While Black said he "can't quite see how Stanley Williams is really the poster child for the cause" against capital punishment, he endorsed the conservative-led fight for Maye. "Every now and then," he said, "the wingnutosphere finds a cause which actually has merit. ... The case of Cory Maye is indeed a travesty."

Radley Balko of The Agitator first told Maye's story to the blogosphere Dec. 7, as the debate over Williams' death sentence was reaching its climax. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit gave the story a larger audience the next day, and Balko later created a Cory Maye page.

Balko even provided a roundup of views from people who believe the Maye verdict is just -- including one whom Balko said "casts some rather nasty aspersions on me."

"Radley's done a good deal of follow-up on this case," Kieran Healy wrote at Out of the Crooked Timber, "and so far nothing he's turned up suggests that Maye is anything other than the victim of an appalling travesty of justice."

On the left, Angelica of Battlepanda is leading the call to arms, as well as taking the roll of the libertarian, Republican and Democratic blogs engaged on Maye's behalf. "When the Instapundit and I both agree that something is wack," she said, "you can be sure that it is indeed very, very wack."

The mainstream media still have ignored Maye's plight -- perhaps a case of death-penalty burnout from covering Williams. Yet the case has captured the interest of bloggers as far away as South Africa, where Laurence Caromba of Commentary noted, "If Maye manages to get off death row, Balko will share a great deal of the responsibility."

Mark Kleiman concluded much the same at The Huffington Post, albeit with a more pessimistic spin: "This case is an interesting test of the power of the blogosphere. ... Unless bloggers can somehow attract the attention of mainstream media outlets, or of the politicians whose statements the mainstream media will treat as news ... then the story is going to die, and so, probably, is Cory Maye."

The blog swarm has the potential to reach beyond Maye himself, though. It might shape public opinion about the death penalty in general, which as James Joyner noted at Outside the Beltway, already has shown signs of changing.

"Capital punishment is rather obviously allowed by the Constitution," he said. "It still has overwhelming public support, as seen in poll after poll and election after election. Those same polls, though, show a growing concern about the way the system works. It may well be that, 20 years or so from now, a majority will oppose state-sanctioned executions."

However American views of the death penalty evolve, blogs are sure to be a factor in that intellectual shift. And bloggers' musings over the execution of Tookie Williams and the death sentence of Cory Maye could prove to be the catalyst for that shift.

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