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    The truth about the death penalty

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000

    ATLANTA -- Nothing is as widely assumed in American politics as the public's enthusiasm for the death penalty or the futility of reform. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

    A recent poll, much discussed at the American Bar Association's death penalty moratorium conference at the Carter Center Thursday, acknowledged that 60 percent of the public supports executions. But nearly half of those who do confess to misgivings. And more than half of all voters, even those who favor the death penalty, say executions should be suspended until the system's fairness can be reviewed, as the ABA has requested.

    The poll, conducted in August among 802 registered voters by Peter D. Hart Research, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, a Republican concern, asked what worried people most about the death penalty. Some 69 percent cited the risk of an innocent person being executed by mistake. Nearly as many -- 61 percent -- favored the suspension of executions in states where "serious questions" have been raised and 53 percent supported a national moratorium.

    This isn't likely to impress the governors or legislatures in states like Texas, Virginia or Florida, whose philosophies are to kill as quickly as possible and let God worry about who might have been innocent. To most state politicians and prosecutors, the death penalty is a "spectator sport," as leading critic Anthony Amsterdam described it, in which the goal is to "win big by proving you can kill someone. . ." They don't care to fix it.

    But if the consciences of most state politicians are in a deep freeze, those of many local politicians are awake. That was the other good news here. Scores of city and county councils, including eight in North Carolina -- hardly a liberal state -- have adopted moratorium resolutions. Charlotte's council did so just a month ago by an 8-3 bipartisan vote over the mayor's veto.

    "The very foundation of our system of government goes to the fact that justice must at all costs be blind," said Rod Autry, a Republican Charlotte council member who defied nasty threats from his party to support the resolution and who says he would not have voted for abolition. "If you want to educate the politicians," he said, "take it to your local town council."

    Town councils can't reform the death penalty. But they can impress those people who might. No Florida communities have spoken up yet. I'm hearing that some will soon have the opportunity.

    A highlight of the conference was a luncheon speech by Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who declared a moratorium after the 13th Illinois death row inmate was exonerated. That was one one more person than Illinois had managed to execute.

    "There'll be no individuals executed in Illinois until we get it right," said Ryan, who has appointed a commission to study the problem and take as much time as it needs.

    Some apologists -- two governors named Bush among them -- argue that the system's proven failure rate proves, paradoxically, that the system works. If courts are reversing so many death sentences, they say -- with 88 people totally exonerated so far -- it means innocent people aren't being killed.

    "That's complete and utter hogwash," said Lawrence C. Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor who worked on many of the Illinois cases. Those innocents who survive, he said, owe it to "dumb luck, serendipity, even the hand of God," but not to a system that the states and now Congress have rigged to focus on procedural rules and timetables rather than on guilt or innocence.

    Marshall noted how Anthony Porter came within 48 hours of being killed before an Illinois court stayed his execution to look into the question of his mental retardation. A class of journalism students used the reprieve to identify the real killer, who confessed, and Porter was released after nearly 17 years on death row.

    "I couldn't sleep, knowing I couldn't defend the system," said Ryan. "How could we come so close, 13 times, to pumping fatal poison into the veins of people who were innocent?"

    As a legislator -- "a pharmacist from Kankakee" -- Ryan had been a death penalty enthusiast. "I wish now," he said, "that I could swallow some of the words of unqualified support that I uttered."

    ABA President Martha Barnett, who summoned the conference, said she considered reform of the death penalty "the civil rights issue of the decade." The ABA, she emphasized, has not called for abolition. Neither would many of the people who came to the conference, though some would.

    Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, for example, said she is "morally and spiritually opposed" to it.

    But even for those who are not, she said, "the questions that have been raised about the unfairness of the system, the conviction of the innocent, poor quality of legal representation, racial discrimination, and the imposition of the death penalty on mentally ill or mentally retarded people and even children, clearly call for a moratorium in order to have a thorough examination of these issues."

    This truth may be a long time percolating to the netherworld we call Florida's Capitol. Perhaps it will come sooner to a city council near you.

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