Justice for All

During the '70s, while I was at the Post-Dispatch, some of the "revolutions" that began in the '60s were still being played out, and the one called "the women's revolution" was reaching an apex. Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were raising political consciousness about the status of women in our society, and there was a national movement for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Women's Political Caucus in Missouri arose as part of this effort and achieved some notable successes. Out of its idealistic cohesion, Harriett Woods ultimately became lieutenant governor and ran for the U.S. Senate. Betty Van Uum became a member of the St. Louis County Council, and Sue Shear was elected to the state Legislature. When Shear died this month at the age of 80, a soft-running dynamo to the end, she had served in the House longer than any woman in state history.

It was not just a time for political assertion for white women. The late DaVerne Calloway had become the first black woman elected to the Missouri House. A longtime activist, attorney Frankie Freeman, had been named to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and black activist women could cite the pioneering efforts of people such as the late Ruth Porter and Gwen Giles and, later, Pearlie Evans and Margaret Bush Wilson on behalf not only of equal rights but of equal opportunity. I am proud to say I knew them all and shared their goals.

But Shear's greatest battle was one she never won, and though she pursued her lost cause to the end, the Equal Rights Amendment was never approved in the Missouri Legislature (or in Illinois, for that matter). And as these women, white and black alike, were to discover in the ensuing 20 years, the all-white "old boys' network" refused to surrender its privileges, even while waving the flag of freedom for all.

Shear had a style about her that disarmed her political and ideological opponents, and were it not for the colon cancer diagnosed last year, her quiet and determined pursuit of the goal of equal rights for women might have lasted another decade, so young and sprightly did she always seem.

And as the political pendulum in America swings back and forth once each decade, as it appears in recent history, it may be that the 21st century will finally see the ERA enshrined in the Constitution. For now, the white Republican gentlemen who control Congress are unlikely to bow to their ladies with the gift of empowerment. But 20 years ago in Missouri, the Women's Political Caucus had a blueprint for change, before the pendulum reversed itself again. Even Shear could do nothing about it.

The political pendulum has also swung back toward capital punishment since 1976, and America's use of the death penalty remains another blight upon the field where enlightened civilization was painted with such promise.

But an unprecedented event occurred this month at Northwestern University's law school, whose home state of Illinois is second only to Florida in the number of condemned inmates later exonerated of the crimes for which they were sentenced to die in society's pursuit of revenge. There at Northwestern, 29 men and women freed from death row described their near-death experiences, and sponsors said the 29 were less than half of the 75 who have been cleared and freed from the execution chambers to which prosecutors, juries and judges had condemned them.

The gathering was attended by some 1,200 people from around the world, and they heard a Northwestern law professor assert that "one in seven of the people that were to be executed end up as being exonerated or innocent, and I want America to know it."

The revelation that one out of seven persons condemned to death was found to be innocent before execution is staggering enough. One speaker contended that 10 percent of convicted felons are innocent of the crimes for which they have been tried.

More basic to this tragedy in our penal system, however, is the much larger question: Does society have the moral right to kill a man because he killed another? America, bastion of the good society, is one of the very few nations in the world that says this is the only way to keep society safe. It may not seem so safe to those who have survived death row.

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