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May 19, 2001
Column #1029


     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 appeal. 

     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 society.''

     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 per 100,000.

     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 executions.

     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 exonerated. 

     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 typical.

     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 legal representation.

     The ancient Biblical wisdom seems increasingly valid, ''Thou shalt not kill.''

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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