STEVE EARLE AND THE DEATH PENALTY CONTROVERSY

I am throwing every Steve Earle CD that I own into the trash. My dear friend Kelly Farquhar was murdered in Austin, Texas, in 1986 by Jonathan Nobles. Steve Earle calls Nobles his brother. Fuck that! If I murder Steve Earle's mother, will he be my brother, too?--Tom McAndrews, Houston

My father-in-law was stabbed to death in a carjacking in 1994 and a nephew of mine was raped and murdered a decade before that. To a degree, I share Tom McAndrews' desire for revenge because. So I can understand why Steve Earle's return to his native Texas to witness the October 7 execution of Jonathan Nobles might make McAndrews want to throw one of the best parts of his CD collection in the garbage.

But, fundamentally, I don't agree with McAndrews because the death penalty isn't about justice or even revenge. The death penalty is carried out almost exclusively against poor people, and not necessarily guilty poor people. Thanks to a Texas court ruling, any evidence that proves innocence in a capital case is invalid if it surfaces 30 days after the conviction. Thanks to Bill Clinton's crime bill, children as young as 13 may now be executed for crimes in which no one was killed. Some of the most reactionary politicians in America--who mean to guarantee that Tom McAndrews and the rest of us do not have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--use death penalty cases to make their careers. In the current California gubernatorial race, both Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lundgren try to out-shout each other in declaring their love for the death penalty. Many people don't notice that they have no other program for the economic insecurity that grips the state.

On the other hand, musicians representing a cross-section of the American people--Metallica, Ice Cube, Steve Earle-- have recorded great songs opposing the death penalty. Taken as a group, these artists symbolize the unity we need to break through the hysteria surrounding the death penalty so we can address the root causes of crime: poverty and drug addiction. (Earle has often said that as a recovering heroin addict, he can easily visualize himself in the electric chair.)

The teenage boy and girl who murdered my father-in-law were homeless. That certainly doesn't excuse what they did. But there's no doubt that if they hadn't been homeless, they never would have met up with my father-in-law near a Highway 101 on-ramp. As every Steve Earle CD and interview confirms, Earle isn't just saying no to the death penalty. He's also saying yes to the fundamental changes that will keep us all alive.--Lee Ballinger, Rock & Rap Confidential staff

TO TOM McANDREWS.... I'm truly sorry for the loss of your friend, so was Jon--from day one--but that won't bring her back either. Now Jon's dead and you're angry at me. Don't you see a pattern here?

Send me a list of titles and I'll refund the money you've spent on my records over the years. I'm sorry if I disappointed you. I'm also curious as to which records of mine you could have been listening to without picking up on the fact that I'm opposed to the death penalty. Did you think I didn't mean it?

Let's get the record straight. I oppose the death penalty for anyone, accused of any crime, under any circumstances, not because it's applied to poor people exclusively (although that's true) or because innocent people are executed (although they have been) but because I believe violence begets violence and therefore makes healing impossible. I've learned only two things in my life of any significant value: There is a god--and I'm not him. Only God has the power of life and death. When we, as individuals or the state, circumvent that power by violence we will always be wrong. I'm truly sorry.--Steve Earle