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Death Penalty Moratorium Idea Attracts Even Conservatives

Concept gains favor over outright abolition. Many backers were swayed by Illinois governor's suspension of capital punishment after 13 death row inmates were found innocent.

August 29, 2000|CLAUDIA KOLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — The headquarters of the nonprofit Moratorium 2000 lies right where you might expect, among cafes and curio shops on the bohemian outskirts of Tulane University. Inside, in a space that once housed a funeral home, volunteers collect signatures urging that the death penalty be suspended nationwide.

From address to architecture, everything about Moratorium 2000 suggests left-wing liberalism. Everything, that is, except its volunteers, who more and more include conservatives like Ryan Jennesse.

For most of his life, Jennesse, a 23-year-old law student from Missouri, favored the death penalty. But he changed his mind after Illinois Gov. George Ryan suspended the state's executions in January because he was troubled by a system that has condemned 13 inmates who were later found innocent.

The governor's decision has helped turn a growing number of Americans like Jennesse into a new sort of death penalty opponent. Though they support capital punishment, they want it stopped until questions about its accuracy and fairness are fully answered. Their concerns have helped create one of the best environments for anti-death penalty work in decades, longtime opponents of capital punishment say.

500 Moratorium Groups Spring Up

In the seven months since Ryan's announcement, about 500 moratorium groups have sprouted up nationwide, bringing the total to more than 1,000, according to the Quixote Center, a Maryland anti-death penalty group. Twenty-seven local governments have urged moratoriums, five states are sponsoring death penalty studies and religious leaders are paying new attention to the debate.

To be sure, most Americans--66% in a recent Gallup poll--still say they favor capital punishment. But a craving for dialogue on the topic, activists say, shows in other, relatively new numbers, such as a July NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that 63% of Americans favor a moratorium until fairness questions are answered.

Although that is the first national poll in which the question was asked, smaller studies in California and Illinois in the last year have also shown majority support for moratoriums, says Jane Henderson, co-director of the Quixote Center.

When Ryan, a pro-death penalty Republican, acknowledged the problem of wrongful convictions, it burst a dam for other questions that had received scant public attention, says Dick Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Among those questions was whether indigent inmates get adequate counsel, whether minorities are condemned disproportionately and whether an inmate such as Oliver David Cruz, reportedly with the IQ of a 12-year-old, should have been executed this summer in Texas.

Intent on confronting these questions, Illinois this year created a panel to study wrongful convictions in that state. In Maryland and Nebraska, government studies are examining questions of racial bias. A Nebraska team is researching which cases end up on death row and which don't, and experts in Indiana are reviewing the state's death penalty procedure from start to finish.

In New Orleans, Moratorium 2000 has collected about 80,000 signatures--half of them in the 18 months before Ryan's announcement, the other half in the six months afterward. Headed by Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose book became the 1995 film "Dead Man Walking," the group will bring its petition to the United Nations this winter. But its main goal is a calm climate for more discussion, says Robert Jones, the operations director. It is that idea that has attracted a surprising influx of conservative volunteers to the group.

The moratorium concept also is attracting religious leaders once loath to tackle the issue publicly.

"A lot of clergy have pretty much ignored the death penalty because they're aware their congregants are not necessarily opposed to it," says Pat Clark of the Religious Organizing Against the Death Penalty Project in Philadelphia. "Most mainstream religious traditions have a very clear position of opposition. . . . But the reality is, not until the last couple of years have they become very active."

Now at the vanguard of death penalty opposition, the Roman Catholic leadership came to its aversion fairly late, notes University of North Carolina historian James Megivern, an expert on Christianity and the death penalty. Although Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical advocated defending all human life, many Catholic leaders were unswayed until 1981, when Pope John Paul II was nearly assassinated. Upon recovering, he launched an energetic crusade against capital punishment.

Religious Leaders Clearly Emboldened

Now, with Ryan's announcement and the pope's successful intervention in a 1999 Missouri death row case, religious leaders are clearly emboldened, Clark says. Some call for ending the death penalty altogether: U.S. Catholic bishops urged a halt in April 1999, and Reform Jewish leaders have joined the Catholic clergymen in urging congregants to become more active against capital punishment.

Unlike outright abolition, the more tempered idea of a moratorium, Clark says, holds special appeal for religious people who, like most Americans, still favor the death penalty in some cases. Religious groups also make up about 60% of the nation's moratorium movements, Henderson says.

That's how Moratorium 2000 drew in Jennesse, a Southern Baptist who still labels himself a conservative.

"I consider it a pragmatic issue," Jennesse says between phone calls at the Moratorium office. "Even if we're going to have the death penalty, the system's broken."

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