Death penalty in Virginia assailed / Robertson backs moratorium on executions
BY ANDREW PETKOFSKY
WILLIAMSBURG -- Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson said yesterday that he believes there should be a moratorium on enforcing the death penalty because it is applied unfairly.
The conservative Christian leader told an audience at the College of William and Mary law school he believes the death penalty is morally justified, but it is being administered in a way that discriminates against African-Americans and the poor and doesn't provide enough opportunities for mercy.
"I think a moratorium would be very appropriate," he said.
During a keynote speech in a symposium on religion and the death penalty, Robertson did
not make a formal call for a moratorium. But he endorsed the idea immediately afterward in response to a question from Michael L. Radelet, a University of Florida professor and anti-death penalty activist.
Robertson later told reporters he needs to consider all the ramifications of the idea and would not "crusade for it" without further study.
Radelet, the director of an organization called Moratorium 2000, said he was stunned and gratified that Robertson endorsed the idea.
"He is unquestionably one of the big moral leaders in the United States," Radelet said.
In his speech, Robertson said personal experiences with condemned criminals who have had a genuine religious conversion while on
death row have given him concerns about the way the death penalty is administered.
That feeling has been strengthened, he said, by recent revelations in Illinois that many death-row inmates were not guilty and the subsequent moratorium on executions imposed by the governor of that state. Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan declared the moratorium earlier this year because 13 death-row inmates have been found in recent years to have been wrongly convicted.
The justice system, Robertson said, must be changed so that convicts are not cut off from opportunities to present new evidence and so that judges and government officials have more ability to show mercy when it is warranted.
"We need a vast public-relations campaign to change the hearts of our nation toward mercy, toward a respect for life, toward a culture of compassion and not a culture of death," he said.
Robertson said he has no moral problem with the death penalty because the book of Leviticus contains a list of offenses that must be punished by death. Moses is the author of that book as well as of the Ten Commandments, Robertson said, which tells him the death penalty has God's blessing. New Testament writings also support the morality of the death penalty, he said.
But, Robertson said, justice was not served in the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer put to death in Texas in 1998.
Tucker had gone through a profound religious conversion during 13 years on death row, Robertson said, and deserved mercy because she was different from the drug-crazed woman she'd been when she used a pickax to murder a couple in bed.
Robertson's religious organization interceded on Tucker's behalf with Texas officials but failed to save her. The scene outside her execution was "like a Roman circus" with people yelling and cheering, Robertson said. "There was bloodthirstiness."
With more than 3,000 people now on death row and more people in prison than ever before, Robertson said, political leaders are directing energy toward punishment that would be better used in strengthening public morality.
"We're looking at capital punishment as a way to mitigate that we have taken moral standards away from our young people," he said.
Efforts should be stepped up to better educate the young, especially young men in the inner cities, and to keep families intact, he said.
Mark Miner, spokesman for Gov. Jim Gilmore, said, "The governor has not changed his position" on the death penalty.
"He does not believe there is a need for a moratorium on executions. There are sufficient precautions in place both in the legal system and when the governor reviews clemency petitions" of death-row inmates, Miner said.
Death-penalty critics, however, welcomed Robertson's remarks.
"I rejoice in the position taken by my dear friend, the Reverend Pat Robertson," Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond said. "There is quite a unanimity within the religious community for a moratorium.
"More and more evidence is being presented that questions whether those who receive the death penalty are receiving a fair trial."
Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, said, "I think it's a reflection of the concern around the country about the accuracy of the death penalty and the fairness" with which it is applied.
"It's been reflected in individual cases Reverend Robertson has been concerned about . . . and I think it's growing into a broader concern about the whole system," Dieter said.
Pope John Paul II has set a good example by taking a position that life is a "seamless whole" and that abortion and the death penalty are wrong, Robertson said. There is a hypocrisy, he said, in the positions of liberal politicians who oppose the death penalty but say abortion is acceptable.
"We can't have it both ways," he said.
A member of the audience later asked Robertson whether a similar hypocrisy exists in Robertson's feeling that abortion is unacceptable but some executions are just.
Robertson revealed that he had personally interceded with Gilmore recently in the case of Lonnie Weeks, who was put to death March 16 for the murder of a state trooper.
After a religious experience, Robertson said, Weeks had accepted the prospect of his death but wanted a chance to ask forgiveness of his victim's family. State officials had denied the request but finally arranged a telephone call between Weeks and his victim's daughter.
Robertson said he was satisfied that justice was served with Weeks' execution and was pleased government officials in that case had afforded Weeks the chance to seek forgiveness.
"We must temper justice with mercy," he said. "There has to be the concept of mercy."
© 2000, Richmond Newspapers Inc.