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Across the US, new doubts surface on death penalty

Release of innocent man from Illinois's death row heightens nationaldebate.

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 24, 1999



CHICAGO

In the realm of the death penalty, 1999 has so far been a remarkable year.

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In numerous states, the ultimate punishment is under fresh attack - on moral, legal, and even diplomatic grounds.

It's giving new hope to opponents of executions. They see the attacks as signs of the self-destruction of a flawed practice.

Supporters counter that these are simply new opportunities to fine-tune a sound policy. Either way, the events are extraordinary.

*The case of Anthony Porter - who was set free from Illinois's death row on Feb. 4 after another man confessed to the crime - prompted Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, a death-penalty advocate, to support a temporary ban on executions. Gov. George Ryan, also a death-penalty supporter, didn't go as far as Mr. Daley but says the state must be more cautious.

*Last month in Nebraska, the state Supreme Court stayed the execution of a native American man who argued that the death penalty is unfairly targeted at minorities. If the court ultimately rules for him, it would be the first time ever this argument has carried the day.

* Pope John Paul II's visit to St. Louis last month - and his successful plea on behalf of a Missouri death-row inmate - has galvanized religious groups press their case on moral grounds

* Germany is the latest in a growing number of nations that have made a full-court diplomatic press to block execution of their nationals in the US. Two Germans are set to be gassed in Arizona in the next two weeks.

"The picture around the country is a reexamination of the death penalty in light of weaknesses and defects in its imposition," says Sam Jordan, director of Amnesty International's death-penalty abolition project.

He notes that more state legislatures are debating bills to limit the death penalty. In 1996, for instance, three states saw bills to limit executions of the mentally ill. In 1997, that jumped to nine.

This year California, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and Texas will take up bills limiting execution of juveniles. Often, however, bills such as these do not pass - in large part because some three-fourths of Americans support the death penalty.

Indeed, last week Ohio executed its first person in 36 years. And in Alaska and Massachusetts momentum is building to instate the death penalty.

Illinoisans' doubts

Here in Illinois, however, more people are doubting the system's ability to put the right people on death row. In the 12 years since Illinois reinstated the death penalty, it has overturned 11 death-row convictions - including two this month.

That's the same number of people as it has executed.

Take Mr. Porter. Last year, two days before he was to be executed for a double murder, his lawyer won a stay, arguing that Porter is mentally handicapped. Then a team of private investigators discovered holes in the case and persuaded another man to admit to the crime. On Feb. 4, Porter joined more than 75 other people who've been freed from death rows in the US.

Traditionally, tough-on-crime politicians have responded to such reversals by saying, "See, it's proof the system works," says Locke Bowman, legal director of the University of Chicago's MacArthur Justice Center. This time, when they "trotted out this line, it sank like a brick."

Now calls for a moratorium are gaining ground.

But capital-punishment supporters counter that the system - not the penalty - needs to change. They also say Illinois's history of corruption and misconduct may have led to faulty convictions.

In 95 percent of death-penalty cases, the correct sentence is given, says Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif. He admits the need for improvement but says talk of abolition is ridiculous: "We don't make perfect cars, but we haven't abolished the automobile."

In Indiana, the Illinois exonerations and the pope's visit have stirred church groups to push their case in the legislature.

For the first time in 20 years, a bill to abolish the death penalty got a full hearing in a committee this month. It didn't pass, yet the fact that abolitionists were pleased with a hearing reflects the opposition they face.

Death-penalty opponents are being energized, however, by a case that could have big implications beyond Nebraska.

A new amendment to the state constitution - which many states have - guarantees equal protection for all residents. Death-row inmate Randolph Reeves's lawyers invoked it, arguing he and other minorities are unfairly targeted with the death penalty. The Supreme Court was persuaded enough to grant Mr. Reeves a stay.

Two of the three people Nebraska executed since it reinstated the death penalty were minorities. Nationwide there are 3,549 inmates on death rows, and 42 percent are black. Blacks make up just 13 percent of the US population.

Most experts thought a US Supreme Court ruling 12 years ago closed the racial-disparity argument. But several state courts - most prominently Nebraska's - have shown a new openness.

Death-penalty supporters counter that a disproportionate number of minorities are arrested, hence the imbalance shows up on death row.

Germans in Arizona

Finally, Arizona's plan to execute two German-born brothers has set off a storm of diplomatic lobbying. German officials argue that under the 1963 Vienna Convention, foreign nationals must be allowed to contact their embassies when arrested. The brothers weren't allowed to do so although it's not clear if they tried.

Nationwide, there are 74 foreign nationals on death rows.

Mexican diplomats got a stay of execution for a Mexican citizen in 1997, but other nations have been unsuccessful in similar attempts. The US State Department has said that if Americans want this right when they're traveling, the US must grant it to foreigners here. Ultimately, however, the decision lies with state governors.