Rethinking the death penalty has become a trend - in sharp contrast with the last two decades, when capital punishment became ever more prevalent and politically popular in the United States.
The new thinking accelerated a year ago when Illinois Gov. George Ryan halted executions in his state until safeguards were in place to prevent a recurring problem of innocent people being given death sentences.
The misconvictions sprang from a number of sources, including police and prosecutor misuse of evidence and, most notably, woefully inadequate defenses during trials.
The Illinois Supreme Court, following two years of study, has put forward new rules for capital cases. Defense lawyers will be required to have substantial trial experience, including familiarity with murder cases. Prosecutors are admonished to seek justice, not just convictions. They'll be required to share evidence that tends to exonerate the accused.
The state high court isn't the only Illinois institution probing death- penalty procedures. The legislature has created a fund to boost resources for both defense lawyers and prosecutors in capital cases. Before the year is out, a commission appointed by the governor will issue findings and recommendations, including, perhaps, abolition of the death penalty.
The steps taken in Illinois will be carefully examined by other states, seven of which are actively debating whether to halt executions. Eight other states have commissions studying death-penalty issues. A bill before Congress would impose a moratorium on federal executions until a proposed national commission could report on the death penalty.
The best reform would be to end the death penalty. It coarsens society, forecloses the possibility of moral change within individuals, and doesn't completely allow for the possibility of error in the trial process. Unfortunately, we're not there.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society