Support for death penalty grows; opponents rethink strategy
Fewer and fewer Americans are without an opinion on the emotion-charged issue of capital punishment for convicted murderers. Death penalty supporters outnumber opponents better than 2 to 1, according to polls taken within the past several months by the Gallup and Louis Harris organizations.Skip to next paragraph
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The Harris survey in January, a few weeks after the lethal injection execution of a convicted slayer in Texas, found that 68 percent of those queried support capital punishment and 27 percent oppose it, with the remaining 5 percent ''undecided.'' Twice as many were recorded in the undecided category a decade ago when death penalty proponents topped the opponents 59 percent to 31 percent.
Death penalty foes are not about to give up their battle, despite the recent Harris poll indicating that hardly more than 1 in 4 share their view on what has become an increasingly volatile issue.
Larry Cox, deputy director of the US branch of Amnesty International, makes this clear. He says that while his organization's stance will remain firm, its leaders now must ''rethink our strategies.''
He hints that this might include a more concerted effort to rally members of the clergy and others to fight what he fears may be a sharp increase in the number of executions in the United States.
While unwilling to speculate what impact it might have, death penalty abolitionists were pleased by the condemnation of capital punishment by Pope John Paul II, the first pontiff in history to take such a stand. In a mid-January speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps, the head of the Roman Catholic Church called on world governments to grant clemency or pardon prisoners on death row.
More recently, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. called for a thorough rethinking of capital punishment in the US. He pointed to the drawn-out appeal process in capital cases as a reason for either streamlining the process or abolishing the death penalty altogether. He said that current procedures, which allow for multiple appeals, represent a ''malfunctioning of our system of justice.''
Leaders of Amnesty International, who oppose capital punishment largely on moral grounds, note that it is outlawed in many countries, especially in the Western Hemisphere. Six nations, including France, which threw out the guillotine in late 1981, have wiped the death penalty off their books during the past seven years.
Mr. Cox, terming the April 22 killing of John Louis Evans III in the Alabama electric chair as ''grotesque,'' says he was surprised the much-publicized execution, which succeeded only on the third try, caused ''little public outrage.''
Death penalty critics throughout the US, like Henry Schwarzchild of the American Civil Liberties Union, hold there is ''no such thing as a humane execution.'' They concede, however, that some methods may appear less violent and thus perhaps more acceptable to the public.
Mr. Schwarzchild notes that within the past year at least four states - Arkansas, Massachusetts, Montana, and Washington - have provided for lethal injection either as an alternative to or replacement for other forms of execution.
A similar measure, strongly backed by Gov. Thomas H. Kean, is moving through the New Jersey Legislature. In several other capital punishment states, including Alabama, proposals for executions through lethal injections are being pushed.
Jack Boger of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund cites the Evans case, the seventh execution since the death penalty was reinstated in the US in 1976 and the third within the past nine months, as ''part of a rising tide.''
He notes that last July Benjamin Renshaw, acting director of the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, forecast as many as three executions a week this year. This would be due to the fast-climbing number of inmates on death rows around the US, he observed.