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Capital-punishment opponents regroup

By George B. MerryStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 2, 1983



Boston

Opponents of capital punishment, with increased resolve, are in quest of new strategies to end executions of convicted criminals in the United States. ''We've got to do a better job in the struggle to change the opinions of many Americans who favor the death penalty,'' says the Rev. Kathy Young, director of the criminal-justice division of the National Council of Churches.

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The Presbyterian minister says capital punishment embraces ''violence and vengeance rather than other rational ways of dealing with such criminals in our society.'' What's needed, she says, is more rallying of support among courts, lawmakers, and the public.

Toward that end, she and several dozen other death-penalty abolitionists from across the US are meeting in Chicago this weekend in the hope of developing a more effective approach to building support for their cause.

The gathering, sponsored by the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty (NCADP), follows the execution Wednesday of Robert A. Sullivan, a convicted murderer, in a Florida electric chair.

Besides members of the clergy from various denominations, human rights activists representing such groups as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Amnesty International will participate in the meeting.

NCADP coordinator Bob Gross says he would like to see ''a strengthening of ties with state and local organizations in helping the public see the that death penalty is a human rights issue.''

''The Sullivan execution brings us together with renewed determination,'' says Henry Schwartzchild, director of the ACLU's capital-punishment branch.

Death-penalty opponents, including Mr. Schwartzchild and Steven Winter of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), say they are encouraged by Pope John Paul II's outspoken opposition the death penalty and his attempt to pursuade officials to block the Sullivan execution.

Among others contacting Florida's Gov. Bob Graham in hopes of preventing the execution was Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. His is one of 38 states with death-penalty statutes on the books. Most of these measures have been enacted since 1976, when the US Supreme Court, which four years earlier had struck down capital punishment as unconstitutional, allowed reinstatement of the death penalty under certain conditions.

The Sullivan execution was the ninth over the past seven years and the fourth within the past 12 months, a source of increased concern to those who oppose the penalty on moral grounds or who believe it constitutes ''cruel and unusual punishment,'' prohibited by the Constitution.

The deliberate taking of a life is not justified, say members of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jewish clergy. They also note that despite the use of capital punishment, the number of murders has not dropped.

As of Oct. 20, a record 1,268 condemned prisoners were in death rows in the country, including seven in US military prisons, according to Carol Palmer of the LDF. Included in that figure are 654 white prisoners, 531 blacks, 67 Hispanics, 9 native Americans, 5 Asians, and 2 others.

While many of those may eventually be spared through pending appeals, death-penalty abolitionists are worried that the pace of executions may quicken considerably in the coming months. There are some 200 condemned prisoners in Florida; 164 in Texas; 144 in California; and 112 in Georgia.

The Sullivan execution was the state's second since capital punishment was reinstated there. John Spenkelink, in May 1979, was the first.

Although conceding that some forms of execution may be less cruel than others , critics of the death penalty generally say none are humane.

Amnesty International, which has been in the forefront of worldwide efforts to ban executions, last year launched a campaign encouraging nations that have outlawed capital punishment to urge the US to follow suit.

At a time when many other nations of the world, including both Britain and France, have dropped capital punishment, the United States is moving in the opposite direction.

But Amy Pearlman of Amnesty's New York office says the organization is no less committed to abolishing capital punishment in the US now.

Although the number of states that allow capital punishment did not increase in 1983, Massachusetts and New Jersey were added in late 1982.

And efforts are afoot in Oregon for a referendum next November to remove the state's constitutional ban on executions.

In most of the states without a death penalty, legislation is expected to be pushed in 1984. Besides Oregon, those states are Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

At least one person is on death row in every other state except for Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Vermont.