Time for Moratorium on Death Penalty by Mike McManus
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Mon May 21 00:07:36 EDT 2001
Ethics & Religion
TIME FOR MORATORIUM ON DEATH PENALTY
by Mike McManus
It is time for America to declare a moratorium on the death penalty.
Timothy McVeigh was supposed to be executed this week. No execution
has had broader public support for no crime was as heinous as his
Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured 700. McVeigh
has acknowledged his guilt, shown no remorse and waived his right to
Yet when the FBI reported it had withheld over 3,000 pages of data on
his case, Attorney General John Ashcroft's postponement of the
execution was widely supported, to give McVeigh and his attorneys time
to see if they contain exculpatory material.
''If this can happen in a case where there was so much publicity, and
good defense attorneys, what happens in normal capital cases where no
one is looking?'' asks Jane Henderson, Director of Moratorium Now (301
699-0042), a group mobilizing grassroots pressure for a halt in
executions to give time to study present the death penalty practice.
For years many denominations: Catholics, United Methodists, American
Baptists, Quakers and others have opposed capital punishment, even in
the case of McVeigh. As Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony put it:
''This is a time for a new ethic - justice without vengeance. Let us
come together to hold people accountable for their actions, to resist
and condemn violence...But let us also remember that we can not restore
life by taking life, that vengeance cannot heal and that all of us must
find new ways to defend human life and dignity in a far too violent
Capital punishment advocates argue that state executions are a
deterrent to murder. The evidence, however, is the opposite. The
South is where 80 percent of executions occur, yet it is the region
with the highest murder rate: 6.9 murders per 100,000 people. The
Northeast, with just 1% of capital punishments, has only 4.1 murders
This evidence supports Reformed Judaism's position that ''When the
government responds to violence with violence even to an act as
horrific as the one which took the lives of 168 people in Oklahoma City
- its action breeds more violence.''
However, this is a minority position in America. A Gallup Poll found 67
percent favor the death penalty. On the other hand, there is a
remarkable 72 percent support for a moratorium, a temporary halt in
Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a statewide moratorium last year
citing the exoneration of 13 death row inmates since Illinois re-
adopted the death penalty in 1977, saying he would permit no more
executions until a study of a system he described as ''fraught with
error'' was completed. Five of the 13 were found innocent through DNA
testing. The state executed 12 people in those years - fewer than were
DNA testing is not provided by any state at public expense. Certainly,
DNA testing should be made available to the 3,726 death row inmates.
A second needed change is to provide competent legal defense to those
who might be executed. Texas, the state with the most executions,
doesn't even have a public defender system. Judges appoint often
incompetent lawyers to be defense attorneys. A study by the Chicago
Tribune of 131 executions found that 43 lawyers had been publicly
sanctioned for misconduct. Three fell asleep during the trial.
A third flaw is racial. Of the 24 people on the federal death row, 21
are people of color. According to the Death Penalty Information Center,
83 percent of the capital punishment cases involved a white victim and
minority killer. If both are of the same race, a life sentence is
A related issue is financial. More affluent people hire good attorneys
who can usually obtain a lesser sentence than execution.
Finally, many cases involve malfeasance by authorities. Just last
week, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating ordered a review of every one of
thousands of cases in which Joyce Gilchrist, forensic scientist in
Oklahoma City, provided often tainted evidence. One judge accused her
of ''blatant withholding of unquestionably exculpatory evidence.''
How many of the 11 defendants executed with her evidence were innocent?
Fifty cities such as Philadelphia and Charlotte, have passed moratorium
resolutions, putting pressure on their state legislatures to act, 16 of
which have debated a moratorium on capital punishment. It failed by
only one vote in New Mexico.
A moratorium might not lead to an abolition of capital punishment, but
could spark a fairer system, such as offering DNA testing and competent
The ancient Biblical wisdom seems increasingly valid, ''Thou shalt not
END TXT Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus
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