In what may signal a crack in the wall of support for the death penalty, a number of states have begun to question whether it can ever be fairly applied. Illinois provides the most dramatic example. Since 1977, 13 men have been released from its death row. One, Anthony Porter, came within two days of execution. Acknowledging the gravity of the situation, Gov. George Ryana death penalty proponentcalled for a moratorium on Jan. 31. "I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error," he said in his statement, "and which has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking an innocent life."
Other states have also begun to express reservations about the use of capital punishment. Although Gov. Mike Johanns vetoed the bill, Nebraska’s legislature called for a moratorium last year. Earlier this month, Maryland’s Gov. Parris Glendening, while stopping short of following the lead of Governor Ryan, ordered a study of capital procedures in his state. A bill under consideration in New Jersey would bar executions until 2003. New Hampshire is going a step further in considering an abolition bill. All told, some dozen states are considering either moratorium or abolition legislation this year because of issues of fairness in its application, particularly in view of perceived racial bias and the often low quality of legal counsel for poor defendants. Cities, too, have begun to press their state representatives to consider moratoriums. Soon after Governor Ryan’s announcement, Philadelphia’s city council urged the Pennsylvania legislature to take the same step. For its own part, the American Bar Association passed a moratorium resolution three years ago.
Increased findings of innocence around the country stem in part from the use of DNA testing. Richard C. Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center told America that DNA evidence has been largely responsible for the reversal of eight capital convictions. Of the exonerated Illinois death row inmates, five, he said, were freed on these grounds. But reversals have also come about through more intensive legal investigation by attorneys uncovering evidence overlooked by the original trial lawyers. One of the most striking aspects of three of the Illinois cases is the fact that the findings of innocence were not the work of attorneys at all, but of journalism students at Northwestern Universitya biting commentary on the inadequacy of death penalty representation in Illinois. An investigative study by The Chicago Tribune found that attorneys representing 33 Illinois men condemned to death were later either disbarred or suspended. But inadequate representation is common in other states too. Defendants in capital cases are often unable to pay for expert counsel and must therefore rely on already overburdened public defenders or inexperienced and poorly paid court-appointed lawyers.
Even as the move toward moratoriums gains ground in some parts of the country, however, the pace of executions has quickened in other areasespecially in the so-called death belt states of the South. Florida recently passed legislation that would shorten the time for appeals, thereby sending condemned prisoners to their deaths more speedily. Florida’s legislation is modeled on that of Texas, which now leads the nation in the frequency of its executions. In the District of Columbia, whose citizens in 1992 rejected a referendum imposed by Congress calling for the reinstatement of capital punishment there, Attorney General Janet Reno has nevertheless called for the death penalty in the case of a Washington, D.C., man accused of the murder of three restaurant employees.
The wider issue, however, goes beyond the question of whether or not the death penalty can ever be fairly administered, to whether it should exist here at all. The Death Penalty Information Center’s recent report, International Perspectives on the Death Penalty, points out that Western Europe has abolished capital punishment, and that the number of countries that have done away with it has reached an all-time high of 105 nations. In continuing to make use of it, we stand with countries like China, Iraq, Iran and Yemenhardly nations with good records on human rights. In terms of world opinion, we are consequently becoming increasingly isolated. The center has also pointed out that a January poll by ABC News found that support for the death penalty drops from 64 percent to 48 percent when an alternative sentence of life without parole is offered. Pope John Paul II made it clear during his visit to St. Louis in January of 1999 that there is no longer any place for a punishment that is both "cruel and unnecessary." In this jubilee year, symbolized at its beginning by the opening of the great doors of St. Peter’s in Rome, the closing of the doors of our execution chambers would be a fitting and positive step at the beginning of a new millennium.