Sunday, July 09, 2000

Reports raising doubts about death penalty

Flawed cases prompt rise in calls for moratorium

By Paul Barton
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — From Oregon to Maryland, grass-roots efforts to abolish or impose a moratorium on the death penalty are rapidly multiplying.

        They range from church-based groups lobbying city councils to prominent former and current members of Congress speaking out on the issue and heading ballot initiatives.

        Death penalty opponents looking at the national political landscape have rarely been more encouraged.

        Prompting even death penalty supporters to take pause, a flurry of reports have found problems in the prosecution of death penalty cases, ranging from underqualified defense lawyers to suppression of relevant evidence to improper jury selection.

        In January, there was Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican who supports the death penalty, publicly worrying that the state could execute an innocent person, and imposing a moratorium on executions until his state's system could be stud ied further.

        Also, the presidential candidacy of Texas Gov. George W. Bush put capital punishment under even more scrutiny, and death penalty opponents see the candidate on the defensive.

        As governor, the presumptive GOP nominee has had 134 inmates executed on his watch.

        Emboldened death penalty opponents are trying to leverage the public's new attention to their cause and have embarked on projects to get moratoriums similar to Mr. Ryan's enacted in the 37 other states with death penalty statutes.

        Polls confirm that their timing may be right, with many surveys having found an erosion of death penalty support in the past few years, from more than 75 percent to 10 or more points less than that today.

        Even conservative voices such as evangelist Pat Robertson have joined the call for a moratorium.

        “It has that really exciting and inevitable feel to it,” said Mary Robinson of the effort. Ms. Robinson, of Austin, Texas, leads the group Tex as Moratorium Now.

        Ms. Robinson added, “A blessing to all of us is George Bush running for president.”

        The Quixote Center, a Hyattsville, Md., interfaith organization that tracks death penalty issues closely, counts at least 860 grass-roots organizations nationwide that are lobbying for a moratorium on executions.

        Many of them are planning to send representatives to Philadelphia and Los Angeles to make their voices heard at the Republican and Democratic national conventions later this summer.

        Not everyone, however, feels confident about chances of repealing the death penalty.

        “There have been groups opposed to the death penalty for decades and decades, but there have been other people just as committed to it for just as long,” said Paul Robinson, law professor at Northwestern University.

        He added, “I think it is true that overall polls have changed and there is less public support for it than last year, but the poll numbers (in support) are still fairly high.”


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