Staff Columnist

Don't trust the state with power to kill

last execution

Fort Madison penitentiary execution of Victor Feguer on March 15, 1963.
last execution Fort Madison penitentiary execution of Victor Feguer on March 15, 1963.

Texas will soon execute a man for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.

Rodney Reed has been on death row for more than two decades. He was convicted in 1998 of killing 19-year-old Stacey Stites.

However, experts and justice advocates say there is overwhelming evidence that Reed could not have killed Stites. Even the state’s forensic pathologist has stated his estimate of Stites’ time of death was improperly represented by the prosecuting attorneys. Reed’s guilt is “medically and scientifically impossible,” according to an analysis by the Innocence Project.

Instead, evidence suggests Stites’ fiance, a former police officer, may have killed her because she was having a consensual sexual relationship with Reed.

There is a growing national campaign to halt the execution. However, time is running short — Reed will be killed by lethal injection next week, unless Texas Gov. Greg Abbott intervenes.

Reed’s case and several similar situations in modern history should give pause to activists and policymakers in Iowa — a state with a fascinating history of state killings — who hope to revive the scourge of capital punishment.

The death penalty has been a controversial policy issue throughout Iowa’s history. Upon the establishment of the Iowa territory in 1838, Iowa had a law calling for public hanging of convicted murderers.

The first territorial governor, Robert Lucas, voiced his opposition to the practice in his first message to the Iowa Territorial Assembly, according to Iowa historian Richard Acton’s account published in Annals of Iowa in 1991.

Advocacy groups and religious coalitions were established with the goal of abolishing or retaining the death penalty. George Stanley’s murder conviction and death sentence in 1871 led to debates, partly motivated by concerns that innocent people might be wrongly convicted, Acton reported.

Lawmakers held several votes on capital punishment in the mid- and late-19th century. In 1872, Iowa became one of the first states to abolish the death penalty. But by 1878, it was the first state re-establish the death penalty.

Fast forward almost a century, when Iowa faced another turning point on capital punishment. Iowan Victor Feguer was scheduled to be hanged in 1963 under federal law for kidnapping, but Gov. Harold Hughes, an opponent of capital punishment, lobbied President John F. Kennedy to commute the sentence.

“I cannot see where this does any good. To me, executions are senseless,” Hughes told Kennedy in a phone call, according to Hughes historian Jerry Harrington.

Hughes lost and Feguer was put to death, the last federal execution until Timothy McVeigh’s in 2001.

In 1965, the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed and Hughes signed a law ending capital punishment, which stands to this day.

Since then, legislators have occasionally proposed restoring the death penalty for certain crimes. One such bill advanced from a Senate committee this year, sponsored by 20 Republican senators.

Many of those same lawmakers correctly recognize that government is an impotent tool, incapable of effectively carrying out basic duties. It is reckless to empower that same government to kill.

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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