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National Perspective | UPDATE

Death Penalty Moratorium Attracting Unlikely Adherents

Movement gains steam and spans party lines as awareness of wrongful convictions grows. Greensboro, N.C., becomes 31st city to endorse a halt.

October 17, 2000|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

One night recently, in the conservative textile town of Greensboro, N.C., the City Council, by an 8-1 vote, passed a resolution urging a moratorium on executions in the state, whose death row is the fifth largest in the nation.

The move was the latest in a series of similar declarations in places as widespread as Atlanta, Baltimore, Philadelphia and San Francisco--31 cities in all--that are harbingers of a growing movement for reexamining capital punishment in the United States.

After years of solid public support for executions, "I think that people have decided to take a second look, both at their own opinions and at the application of the death penalty," said Bob Carpenter, a Republican pollster in Virginia whose firm has been polling on the issue.

As recently as four years ago, foes of the death penalty--many of whom had fought against capital punishment for a generation--seemed to be pursuing a totally lost cause.

Even now, a majority of people nationwide support capital punishment, according to numerous opinion polls. But the surveys also show that the majority has shrunk and support for a moratorium has grown. Revelations of wrongful convictions around the country, combined with the advent of DNA technology, a nationwide decline in crime rates and some artful organizing with strong input from the American Bar Assn., religious groups and foundations all appear to have contributed to the change.

Unlike earlier efforts against capital punishment, the current drive focuses on reform, not abolition. As a result, the movement has gained significant new allies--most notably Illinois Gov. George Ryan. The Republican governor supports capital punishment, but in February imposed a moratorium in his state.

Ryan acted after 13 men were freed from death row in Illinois because judges had concluded that they were wrongfully convicted. Anthony Porter, the 13th, was just hours from execution when a group of Northwestern University journalism students produced evidence that another man had committed the murder.

The moratorium was needed "because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row," Ryan said.

Greensboro Councilwoman Nancy Vaughn, also a Republican, is another unlikely ally of the moratorium movement.

"The death penalty is just," she said after voting to endorse a moratorium earlier this month. "However, I have very deep concerns about the equitability, the equality and the efficiency" of how the penalty is imposed.

Moratorium Called 'a Moral Dodge'

So far, death penalty supporters have not mounted organized opposition to the moratorium movement, although some of them are speaking out against it.

"The thing about the moratorium I find offensive is, it's a moral dodge," said Josh Marquis, the district attorney of Clatsop County in Oregon and a member of the National District Attorneys Assn.

"For opponents of the death penalty, no moratorium will be long enough," he said.

The moratorium movement, he asserted, had improperly lumped several issues--"innocence, DNA, poor lawyers, jailhouse snitches"--into one in an attempt to "change the debate from whether it is right to kill people to 'surely you are not in favor of killing an innocent person.' "

Indeed, at least some longtime crusaders against capital punishment worry about precisely that emphasis. The focus on innocence will dissipate over time as people realize that many condemned inmates are guilty, they fear.

Still, most are happy to have new support.

"My view is that this is like any other political movement: The only way you can achieve ultimate success is by broadening the number of people involved," said Atlanta attorney Stephen Bright, who has handled appeals in capital cases for two decades.

"I've been crying in the wilderness for 20 years about poor defense lawyers, racism, executions of the mentally ill. Now people are paying attention. That's good," Bright said.

Although the moratorium effort is gathering strength, it is too early to say how much effect it will have.

Nationwide, the pace of executions has slowed somewhat in 2000. Last year, 98 people were executed in the United States; so far this year, 70 have been.

In Maryland, Gov. Parris Glendening has set aside $225,000 for a study of whether blacks in the state are more likely to be executed. Studies of whether the death penalty is being administered fairly have also been launched in Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and North Carolina.

Even in the state that has executed by far the most people--Texas--the moratorium drive is gaining some surprising adherents.

Sam D. Millsap Jr., a former district attorney from San Antonio, for example, recently endorsed the idea. He was "no longer convinced our legal system guarantees the protection of the innocent in capital murder cases," Millsap wrote in the San Antonio Express News.

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