June 17, 2001

Death Penalty Falls From Favor as Some Lose Confidence in Its Fairness


After a decade in which there appeared to be an unshakable near consensus in favor of the death penalty, Americans say they are now rethinking and debating capital punishment as a moral issue the way they argue over abortion.

The debate came into sharp relief last week with an unlikely confluence of events: the execution of the Oklahoma city bomber, Timothy J. McVeigh, the protests during President Bush's European visit criticizing America's death penalty policy as a violation of human rights, the decision by the embassy bombing jury in New York against giving the death penalty for a convicted terrorist and the execution in Ohio on Thursday of a murderer who contended he had schizophrenia. 

Interviews in six states this week reflect the poll numbers, which show that while there is still a majority in favor of the death penalty, the size of the majority is shrinking.

While many people cited the biblical command to take "an eye for an eye," and few objected to the execution of Mr. McVeigh, others said they had recently changed their minds after concluding that the death penalty was administered unfairly.

Some said that what persuaded them was the news that 13 prisoners on death row in Illinois were discovered to be innocent a revelation that led Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, to declare a statewide moratorium on the death penalty last year. Others said they were troubled by reports that the death penalty may be disproportionately imposed on blacks and Hispanics.

"I've slowly been changing my mind about the death penalty," said Fredrica Hicks, a mother of three who works in a Social Security office in Chicago, where the exonerations of prisoners in her state gave her pause. "What would happen if something went wrong and someone accused me of something and there was no way for me to prove my innocence, or evidence was lost and I was sitting on death row? If it has happened to someone else, it could happen to anyone. It could be me." 

But Charlotte Stout, a retired nurse in Greenfield, Tenn., rebutted that, saying: "To me, that is the system working. If it hadn't been working, the innocent people wouldn't have been released." 

Last year, Ms. Stout witnessed the execution of Robert Glen Coe, who had kidnapped, raped and killed her 8-year-old daughter, Cary Medlin, in 1979. Ms. Stout said that the death penalty was a morally and "biblically appropriate" punishment because it served the victims' families.

"When I walked out of that execution chamber that night, I felt like I had been given my life back," she said. "It could not bring Cary back, but it gave us our life back. Coe no longer had control of our lives through his legal maneuvers."

But in Portland, Ore., Ellis Martin, a 34-year-old sales associate for a specialty beer importer, said: "The justice system has been proven to be racist, a lot of people have been found innocent after being found guilty and there's just too much room for a flaw to use something so final as to kill someone."

The turning point in the national dialogue about the death penalty came last year with the moratorium in Illinois, said Austin Sarat, a professor of political science and law at Amherst College. 

"Today to be raising questions about capital punishment is to be in the company of the pope, Governor Ryan, the Legislatures of Nebraska and New Hampshire, the columnist George Will, Pat Robertson and William Sessions, the former director of the F.B.I., all of whom have come out in favor of a moratorium, said Mr. Sarat, the author of "When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition" (Princeton University Press, 2001). 

"Moratorium doesn't necessarily mean abolition," he continued, "but it's a far piece from where we were in the early 90's, when to be against the death penalty was to be considered outside the American mainstream."

The last time there was such passionate debate over the death penalty was in the 1970's. The Supreme Court called a stop to executions in 1972, but 38 states eventually passed new death penalty laws to comply with the court's decision. The executions began again in 1977 in Utah.

Polls show support for the death penalty has fallen since 1994, when about 80 percent of the public favored it. Recent polls have found about 65 percent in support, but the problem with polling on the death penalty is that outcomes vary with the way the question is asked. When respondents were asked whether murderers should get life in prison or the death penalty, the response in recent polls showed the public to be about evenly split.

Still, a majority of Americans continue to regard the death penalty as a fitting, even biblically mandated punishment for people who murder. Randy Voepel, the mayor of Santee, Calif., where a student opened fire in a high school in March, said: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not about revenge. It's about a punishment that is commensurate with the offense. It's the old punishment-fits-the-crime belief." 

In interviews, some people ridiculed Europeans, who have outlawed executions, as hypocrites for pointing fingers at Americans. Harold Christopher Bray, who installs fire sprinklers in Portland, Ore., said: "I think that its pretty humorous considering that France invented the guillotine and Spain had the Spanish inquisition and the Germans had the Holocaust. I think as a country, we've probably killed less than a lot of other countries. There's plenty of European countries that created a lot of death."

But Lang Dunbar, a job trainer for welfare recipients in Cleveland, said he was embarrassed to be a citizen of a country that still has the death penalty.

"It's awfully funny how George Bush and his crowd can hang a Ten Commandments on the wall it says not to kill but then they turn their back when they want to kill someone," he said.

Advocates of capital punishment once promoted it as a deterrent to crime, but experts said that despite falling crime rates, that argument has not proved convincing with the public, as indicated in the interviews.

"Go down to the police department and look at the police blotter and you'll be convinced it's not deterring anything," said Jerry Jones, an election worker in Chicago.

Contributing to the debate, religious groups have recently amplified their positions. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, passed a resolution last year supporting "fair and equitable use of capital punishment." Last week, Quakers, Reform Jews and Roman Catholic bishops denounced the execution of Mr. McVeigh. 

But many of those interviewed said they neither knew nor cared about the stance of their denomination's leaders. Gloria Jiacalone, 75, a Catholic in Chicago who regularly attends Mass, said: "How the Cardinal reacts to the death penalty, I don't care. It's a personal thing. I think everybody has their own personal idea about this. The church or a pastor or anybody isn't going to tell me or anybody else how to think."

Professor Sarat said that in this "period of reconsideration," it was too early to project whether the change in public opinion would result in banning the death penalty, or merely reforming it. 

"It may be," he said, "we end up with a `mend it, don't end it' view, that we want capital punishment available for the worst of the worst, but we want to improve the process, or use it more sparingly."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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