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California and the West

Mahony Urges Davis to Place Moratorium on Executions

Religion: Cardinal says death penalty is fatally flawed and biased against minorities and poor. Governor has refused to suspend it.

May 26, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Declaring the answer to violence is not more violence, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said Thursday that it was imperative for Gov. Gray Davis to impose a moratorium on California's death penalty.

In a strongly worded letter to the governor and in a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, Mahony charged that the administration of the death penalty is fatally flawed and biased against minorities and the poor.

Davis should halt executions until a bipartisan commission can assess "the inequities, weaknesses and biases" in sentencing prisoners to death, Mahony said.

Davis, a Catholic, is a strong backer of the death penalty. A spokesman for the governor said Thursday that as long as the death penalty is on the books Davis will enforce it. Earlier this year, Davis said that any judges he appoints who later break with him on major issues such as capital punishment should resign from the bench.

Mahony, however, insisted that "our support for victims and their family members is not diminished by imposing a moratorium on the death penalty." A moratorium "is recognition that we cannot heal society as we continue to administer a system that is fatally flawed."

While Mahony has spoken out against the death penalty before and appealed for clemency in individual cases, his letter to Davis marked the first time that he had directly urged the governor to impose a blanket moratorium on executions. There are 565 inmates awaiting execution in California.

Mahony said Thursday that Davis should follow the example of Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who in January effectively imposed a moratorium on executions after a series of Illinois cases in which death row inmates were found to be not guilty. Ryan said he would automatically grant a stay of any death sentence that reaches him until problems in the state's death penalty system can be assessed.

"California has no less an obligation to conduct a thorough assessment of its system," Mahony wrote Davis in a May 24 letter made public Thursday.

Davis' press secretary, Michael Bustamante, said Thursday that the governor's office was unaware of any problems in California comparable to those in Illinois, where 13 inmates have been put on death row and later exonerated since the state reinstated capital punishment in 1977.

Mahony made several arguments against executions. "This is a time for a new ethic--justice without vengeance," he said, adding that "we cannot restore life by taking life."

Beyond that, he said, disproportionate numbers of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income people are on death row. And, finally, there is "mounting evidence" that innocent people have been sentenced to death.

A bipartisan commission along the lines he has proposed could start a public dialogue about bias and injustice--the first step toward rectifying problems within the justice system.

But, he added, "in the end we are deceiving ourselves if we believe we can fix the current death penalty system to make it more humane and just."

"Social, political and economic factors make a complete overhaul of the system doubtful. Moral and ethical questions make such an endeavor impossible."

The Roman Catholic Church has moved over the centuries from active support of the death penalty to advocating a limited, prudent use of it to saying that executions should be employed only in the rarest of cases. More recently, Pope John Paul II has all but closed the door on executions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the death penalty should be imposed by a state only when there are no other means to protect society.

During his last visit to the United States, in 1999, the pope appealed during a stop in St. Louis to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the sentence of confessed triple murderer Darrell Mease. Carnahan, a Baptist, was severely criticized by death penalty supporters in his state and elsewhere when he agreed to the pope's request.

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