Twenty-seven years ago this summer, millions of conservative Americans were riveted to their televisions over six days as they watched some of the most compelling Congressional testimony ever given. Because what they saw bothered them immensely. During those July, 1987 U.S. Senate hearings on the Iran-Contra operation, United States Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Oliver North testified on what he knew about the biggest “scandal” to rock the Reagan White House as Democrat after Democrat attacked him mercilessly. The event is so iconic that the now retired Lt. Colonel Oliver North recently served as a story consultant and played a small acting part on the FX television show set in the 1980s called “The Americans.”
Today, depending on your political persuasion or age, the name Oliver North may mean a lot of different things to you. Warrior, patriot, conservative, anti-communist, controversial figure, Reaganite, opportunist, 80’s icon, war monger, gun nut, broadcaster, Christian or some other quick label. For a newer generation under thirty or so, North is mostly an author, TV broadcaster, in demand public speaker, thoughtful veteran and a soft-spoken grandfather.
Popularly, North rightly holds a warrior’s image, sort of like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny character in the Oscar-winning film “Unforgiven.” Now an older man himself, North spends his time hosting “War Stories” on Fox News and raising needed funds for his Freedom Alliance charity and other deserving groups.
What most people probably don’t know is that the same Oliver North who bravely served his country in Vietnam and other bad places we’ll probably never know about is a staunch opponent of the death penalty. For real. As in, he believes we should abolish the death penalty and change our justice system while we are at it. While this may actually be old news to his family, friends and cohorts in the upper echelons of the Conservative movement, his opposition to the death penalty may surprise many people on the Left and the Right. So much so that North’s opposition could provide some muscle to national efforts on the Right to overturn the death penalty in some Red states. Kentucky, South Dakota and Nebraska have bills in their State Legislatures sponsored or backed by… guess who? Conservative Republicans who feel just like Oliver North.
Law and Order versus the scales of justice?
During our telephone conversation, North stated empathically, “I’m a law and order guy. Don’t get me wrong. Individuals need to be held accountable. I don’t believe in mass punishments and group responsibilities and the kinds of fuzzy-wuzzy stuff of the Left, but I have always felt… and always said that there are very serious questions about the justice of the death penalty. Just a few months ago, a man (Glenn Ford) who was on death row for thirty years was found to be innocent.”
Due to the statistics at play, the role of race in the administration of justice and sentencing is often brought into question. According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), the current U.S. Death Row population is 43.25% White, 41.6% Black and 12.66% Latino. Also, the DPIC reports that since the restoration of the Death Penalty in 1976, defendant executions by race are 56% White, 34% Black and 8% Latino. In a country that has well over 3,000 inmates on death row, it is hard not to see that race might be an issue in regards to the death penalty. Further, based on research just published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, at least 4% of death penalty inmates in the United States are innocent. One hundred forty-four people on death row have later been found innocent and freed from prison since 1973.
Iran –Contra and the death penalty
Oliver North’s opposition to the Death Penalty came out of the same Iran-Contra controversy that made him a world-wide known figure when he was nearly sent to prison for his part in the U.S. arms for terrorist-held hostages deal. Writing about his trial experience in his New York Times best-selling autobiography, Under Fire, North declared that “justice is supposed to be blind; the color of a person’s skin should not determine their guilt or innocence.” He held this belief before his own trial, but his belief turned into a mission after many in the U.S. Media including the New York Times called for North to go to prison.
As a white male, Naval Academy graduate, career-military, high-level government-connected guy who was on trial for his life… North had a selected “jury of his peers” that was all-black and mostly female. The media and his own lawyers never made a case of this fact either before or after North’s trial. Subsequently, this same jury found North guilty of three charges and innocent of ten charges. Due to the work of North’s legal team led by Brendan Sullivan and the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, all of the guilty charges against him were later reversed on appeal nearly two years later and at great expense.
Before his successful appeal though, North’s belief in justice being blind and race having no factor in guilt or innocence was put to the test. North himself never thought of race being a factor in his conviction until about a year after his trial, when he saw a member of the all-Black jury interviewed about the verdict on a news show. Regarding the verdict, the juror said, “what were people going to think on the outside if we found him not guilty? Okay, what were they going to think of us being as blacks, finding a white man not guilty? They’re going to think that we’re stupid.”
After seeing this Juror on TV, North was floored to say the least and the juror’s revelation shook his belief in the American justice system. North said, “The press was there by the hundreds every single day for a trial that went on for over a year. The amazing thing that was never reported [in the media] was that this was a White man being tried by an all-Black jury. When you read what the Jury Forewoman says at the end of it… when you read what she says, you say that that same kind of a jury system can cause a person to be put to death? You have got to wonder why we do it. I will grant you that there are certainly cases where it is hard to say that the person doesn’t deserve to die. But if you’re going to make one mistake, isn’t that too many?”
President Obama’s Drones of Execution
On the death penalty and criminal justice System, North has a vernacular and a way of thinking that makes him unlike most any other Republican on the national stage except for maybe Rand Paul. He isn’t manning a barricade or leading protest marches, but he is speaking out, turning heads and changing minds at an increasing rate. He may also be connecting with the elusive millennials and some minorities in ways that the institutional Right can only dream of. While most major American Media outlets portray our justice system as an issue mainly for people of color, the less affluent or those on the frays of society – North’s perspective is gaining traction on the Right and with it, more access to America’s heartland.
North doesn’t just consider the Death Penalty from a domestic law-and-order perspective. North also looks at the Death Penalty through the prism of what our Federal Government is doing to prosecute the war on terror. Says North, “Justice has to be an issue. There are a lot of different aspects to that. There’s the kind of ways in which we bring charges against people. There’s the way that we ignore certain cases. We’re now at a point, to focus on the death penalty aspect of it, where the Commander-in-Chief decided unilaterally without the benefit of a trial, a prosecution, a jury, a judge or an appeal… that an American citizen could be executed by the order of the President of the United States.” North continues, “now that has probably happened more than once if you believe some of the leaks that come out of the White House. The executions were not carried out by a firing squad or a hangman or a chemical injection or an electric chair. They were carried out by a Hellfire missile and if he can do that in Yemen or Pakistan, what is to say that he couldn’t do that in Mexico, in Canada or in Montana?”
Is the death penalty still taboo for the GOP?
The Republican Party on the whole hasn’t embraced the North Doctrine on the death penalty, but his experiences on the campaign trail may serve as a sign that the subject shouldn’t be taboo. “When I ran for the Senate in 1994 in Virginia, I took the same stance that I just mentioned. But I pointed out that I was not going to vote in the United States Senate for a death penalty measure, nor am I going to be an Executive where I would have to carry one out. You know what? I got the endorsement of every police organization in Virginia [when I ran] and they all knew exactly where I stood on that issue. Every Fraternal Order of Police, every police union… every Sheriff’s Office except one. There are one hundred thirty-four Sheriff’s Offices in Virginia and I visited them all.”
Does North think that such judicial issues can affect the political landscape in the future? “I think it could be a factor. Maybe not the death penalty alone, but the issue of justice. The issue of what the government can and cannot do to the American people, broadly [are] certainly going to be issues in the next Presidential Election. Being an opponent of the Death Penalty is probably a minority position in this day and age. But I still think it is the kind of thing that deserves an informed debate in our society and our culture. What is it about us that says that we have to affect that kind of retribution? Is it really a deterrent? It doesn’t seem to be.”