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Web site 'handicaps' executions

Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Jerald Harjo got to death row in Oklahoma along the main atrocity highway; he strangled an 84-year-old woman while robbing her home. Nothing legally remote or narratively circuitous about that, so there's no mystery in the fact that his case attracted little national notice.

It's of no significant concern even in Oklahoma and might more likely be a talking point in Texas, because if Oklahoma put Harjo to death this week as planned (he was scheduled to die late last night), it would mean that Oklahoma has executed 13 people this year to Texas' seven. Whenever Oklahoma goes up a touchdown on Texas, Texans grow concerned.

But if nowhere else, Harjo's case was a hot issue among players of Fantasy Death Row, the Internet game that does for state-sponsored savagery what rotisserie leagues did for baseball, football, etc. Oh, there's nothing we can't geek on.

This means there is somebody at an office coffee machine somewhere saying, "Can you believe Harjo got a stay? Man, I never thought he was worth 5 points. Thought he was a dead man. That's four stays for me this month. Is the kid hot or what?"

When your own culture fosters breezy jocularity about life and death against the dark yammering symphony of protest over China being awarded the 2008 Olympics, you wonder whether a better question than "How, with its horrid human rights record, did China get the Olympics?" might be "How did Atlanta, or Salt Lake City, or Los Angeles ever get them?"

Where but in the good ol' USA, do you suppose, could someone maintain a thriving Web site that lives to handicap executions?

"He's American Indian," Fantasy Death Row says of Harjo, "which, while a source of sympathy in some states, is a liability in Oklahoma. Anti-DP [death penalty] haven't mobilized."

Written with the cadence and animal indifference of a racing form, the site listed Harjo's chances of being killed at 3-1 against. The way you play Fantasy Death Row is by picking three prisoners from among the thousands of condemned men and women nationally, then earning points depending on their fate.

The better the prisoner's fate, the more points you get. I suppose there's a certain humanity in that, but the search could be exhausting.

If your death row inmate gets pardoned, you get 50 points.

Clemency earns you 25, a stay 5, and 1 point if the doomed beseech God's mercy in their final words. If your pick is executed, you lose 10 points, and if he or she is executed and later determined to be innocent, you lose 50. That last one's your Final Fantasy Death Row Nightmare, I guess, and all it cost was the life of an innocent.

China may have killed more people in the past three months than the rest of the world's nations have in the past three years, as Amnesty International has pointed out, but given the disproportions of population, the folks at the Fantasy Death Row site have figured out that a person is still more likely to be executed by Texas.

Working it as a naked long-division problem, Fantasy Death Row scientists say the chances that a person in China will be executed by his or her government are 1 in 155,904, while the chances a Texan will get a night in the death chamber are 1 in 147,885. That doesn't even allow for the harsher math facing blacks, the poor, the mentally impaired or those afflicted by feckless counsel.

But let's not pick on Texas; we've got plenty of states all outfitted not only for capital punishment, but also for capital punishment of the mentally retarded, even capital punishment for juveniles if we get around to it.

Human rights issues are everywhere the Olympic spotlight never sweeps. You don't have to look past Steve Twedt's current and exquisitely compelling series on how Pennsylvania has forced its juvenile justice system to warehouse mentally ill children for a chilling example.

America has a half-million more prisoners than China with only one-quarter of its population.

All that having been said, it probably shouldn't preclude either country from hosting the Olympics. It's not, after all, the honor it used to be. China being the host is actually a good thing. Since its athletes are consistently among the world's most chemically endowed, keeping them at home should hold the gross metric tonnage of performance-enhancing drugs crossing international borders to a modern minimum.


Gene Collier's e-mail address is gcollier@post-gazette.com

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