Crowded death rows at center of debate

Time could be running out for many of the more than 950 prisoners condemned on the nation's crowded death rows.

Legal challenges to the death penalty and debates on its effects and moral merits are under way in a number of states. Still, the Justice Department is predicting as many as three executions a week beginning next year.

The death penalty has already been raised as an issue in the Georgia gubernatorial campaign and is likely to be raised in New York's.

New Jersey's Legislature has just passed a death penalty, which Gov. Thomas Kean (R) has indicated he will sign. Some 36 states already have it.

No widely credited studies indicate the death penalty is a deterrent to murder, according to a variety of experts contacted by the Monitor. And a recent study indicates that executions may actually incite additional murders in society.

Legal challenges to the application of the death penalty are in progress in several states. If successful, they could halt the executions of many of the 958 people under death sentence as of the end of June. (Another 80 people on death row have had their sentences overturned, but the states involved are trying to reimpose them.)

The current number of condemned far exceeds any previous federal count.

The challenges allege that the death penalty often is applied in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.

A major study completed last year by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston found that, in similar cases, the death penalty is more likely to be imposed when the murder victim is white than when the victim is black. In Florida, for example, which has more people on death row than any other state, a black convicted of murdering a white was 37 times more likely to be condemned to death than a black convicted of murdering a black.

So far such findings have never been heard by the US Supreme Court.

Florida Attorney General Jim Smith said he believes the death penalty is a deterrent to murder. He said murders in Florida dropped during a three-year period after the state's death penalty was upheld by the US Supreme Court.

But the murder rate has also dropped in some states without a death penalty, says attorney Jack Boger of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in New York.

Boger also notes that previous federal predictions of massive executions during the late 1970s proved false.

On the moral aspects of the death penalty, Smith said: ''The debate on this should continue.''

A federal report, not yet released, will show that last year one person on death row was removed after being found innocent and charges against two others death-row inmates were dropped, says Census Bureau analyst Susan Schecter-Ryan.

Some proponents of the death penalty say it is morally justified by certain crimes. Some opponents say the Mosaic commandment against killing should rule it out.

Some Bible scholars say the Mosaic commandment was not all-inclusive. The Interpreter's Bible, for example, states that the commandment did not forbid ''the slaying of animals, capital punishment, or the killing of enemies in war.''

The recent Justice Department report estimates up to three executions a week will occur starting sometime next year. Florida, Texas, and Georgia had the most death-row inmates, in that order, accounting for nearly half of the federally counted total in all states as of Jan. 1.

Forty-one percent of the death-row inmates in the count are black. Since 1977 there have been four executions. Three of the men killed chose not to pursue all routes of appeal.

Florida Attorney General Smith says that immediately after his state's last execution, an armed robber confronted by a police officer threw down his gun, saying, in effect, he didn't want to be executed, too.

To see what effect executions may have had on society, William Bowers, director of the Center for Applied Social Research at Northeastern Univeristy, and Glenn Pierce examined execution and homocide records in New York from 1907 to 1963. They found an average of two additional homocides in the month immediately following each execution, even when other variables were taken into account.

''The message of an execution is not deterrence,'' says Bowers. The message society gets is ''that lethal vengeance is the appropriate response to situations of feeling outraged and offended.''

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