Executioner's swan song?

Public support is weakening, but the death penalty will be slow to die.

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Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s decision to suspend the death penalty — while affirming his belief in capital punishment — represents America’s own schizophrenia. We believe in the death penalty but shrink from it as applied.

But Ryan’s action also represents a public shift. While he is the first governor to take such a stand since the death penalty’s resumption in 1977, cities as disparate as New Haven, Conn., and Mount Rainier, Md., among others, are on record as favoring a moratorium.

The New Hampshire primary also suggests a shift in public mood. In 1992, Bill Clinton felt compelled to leave New Hampshire long enough to be seen presiding over the execution of a severely brain-damaged and retarded prisoner. This year, Republican Gov. George W. Bush — who boasts of presiding over more executions than any governor in history — was overwhelmingly trounced in his primary bid in the same state.

There are other signs that our love for the death penalty is on the wane. Last year, the number of death sentences meted out was the fewest in six years. The number of commutations also rose to a six-year high in that period.

There are many reasons for the shift but first among them — and the immediate cause of Ryan’s announcement — is the rash of innocent people recently released from death row, often after many years. In Illinois, more people (13) have been freed than executed (12) since 1977. Anthony Porter spent 15 years on death row, and was only two days away from being executed when a group of committed college students convinced authorities they had proof of his innocence.

New Hampshire legislators heard Paris Carriger testify about the 21 years he spent on Arizona’s death row before being exonerated. On the day of Gov. Ryan’s announcement, a judge released Dwayne McKinney from a California prison where he spent 19 years for a murder he did not commit — as the prosecutor himself admitted. In all, 84 people have been freed from death row since capital punishment was restored.

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Further undermining the public’s faith in the fairness of the process is the use of jailhouse informants to obtain a conviction in exchange for significant favors like a reduced sentence.

Other events and facts may be moving the public to see the death penalty as the ultimate abuse of human rights:

  • At the end of 1998, Pope John Paul unequivocally called for the end of capital punishment

  • Worldwide, the U.S is ever more isolated — even Russia has abolished the death penalty and we stand alongside Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as the only countries in the world executing juvenile offenders

  • Corrupt police and prosecutors have undermined trust in the criminal justice system — in Los Angeles, for example, investigators have found about 100 convicted “criminals” (so far) who were framed by cops who planted evidence and intimidated witnesses

    Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has set process over justice by ruling that even actual innocence is not necessarily grounds for relief and an overreaching federal government has imposed a federal death penalty even in states that have rejected it, like Vermont and Hawaii.

    Signs of change are clearly reflected in the popular media. Sister Helen Prejean’s popular book “Dead Man Walking,” and the film based on it, clearly touched an emotional nerve. This year, “The Green Mile” and “The Hurricane” cannot fail to have a profound impact.

    Virtually every major show on television has dramatized the issue of capital punishment in the last season or two — almost always in a way that provokes deep second thoughts about the death penalty.

    All this has some effect on public opinion — a February Gallup poll finds support of the death penalty at 70 percent, the lowest level in 13 years. Nearly one-fourth of entering college freshman agreed the death penalty should be abolished, a noticeable increase over the preceding year.

    Support for the death penalty declines dramatically — below 50 percent in California with the country’s largest death row — when people are asked about life without parole as an alternative. Polls in Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, New York and Kentucky produce similar responses. Change will not occur overnight. The legal process is slow to respond — last year, for example, this country carried out the most executions (199) in nearly 50 years.

    But Gov. Ryan’s decision is not the beginning of a process, it is the continuation of one that will certainly culminate in the end of capital punishment in this country. Politicians, ever fearful of endangering their electoral chances, are the last to change. That Ryan has crossed that barrier is the true significance of his courageous act.

    (c) Copyright Pacific News Service

  • Michael Kroll is an associate editor at Pacific News Service and a veteran death penalty abolitionist. He is founder of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

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