World human rights group takes aim at capital punishment in the US

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, is rallying its members around the world to get behind efforts to rid the United States of capital punishment.

Through letters and other contacts with friends and kin in the US, the Nobel Prize-winning organization hopes to build increased grass-roots support for repeal of death penalty statutes.

The task is likely to prove formidable. Public support for capital punishment in the US has grown markedly during the last 10 years. A February 1981 Gallup poll found that two-thirds of those questioned backed capital punishment for certain types of first-degree murders. A decade earlier, only 49 percent of respondents to a similar survey backed the death penalty.

But Amnesty International activists are encouraged by last fall's outlawing of the guillotine in France and by similar moves to abolish capital punishment in Brazil, Canada, Nicaragua, and Peru, in recent years. Amnesty officials say they feel the time is right to push for elimination of the death penalty in the US.

''We are trying to focus world attention on the situation in the United States in hopes of encouraging Americans to get rid of the death penalty,'' explains Larry Cox, deputy director of Amnesty International's New York-based US affiliate.

The person-to-person campaign is scheduled to run about three months and coincides with legislative sessions in several states where the capital punishment issue is a hot topic of debate.

Today, all but 14 of the 50 states have capital punishment laws on their books. The nation's death-row population is nearing 1,000.

Capital punishment measures currently are being pushed, or are expected to be introduced within the next few weeks, in Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and West Virginia.

In New Jersey, a bill to permit the execution of persons convicted of certain types of homicides was aired recently before a legislative committee. The state legislature passed a similar measure last year, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne. Republican Thomas H. Kean, his successor, supports capital punishment. Observers say support for the death penalty in the legislature has not diminished.

In the New York legislature, supporters of capital punishment have been thwarted in the past by Gov. Hugh Carey. Political observers in Albany say they are not certain if backers of the death penalty can muster the support needed to override a gubernatorial veto, should this year's legislation get that far.

The Empire State already has a death penalty law on the books. But most of it was thrown out by the state's highest court five years ago, leaving only those who kill while serving a life sentence for murder covered.

:Current moves to restore capital punishment in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Oregon are directed toward proposed changes in state constitutions through next November's ballot. Present constitutional language in all three states renders inoperative any capital punishment law that might be enacted. Previously enacted statutes in Massachusetts and Oregon have been struck down within the past two years by state supreme courts.

These were among the more than three dozen capital punishment laws rewritten or reinstated since 1976 when the US Supreme Court in effect reopened the door to executions for premeditated murder and certain other types of slaying. Four years earlier, in a historic decision involving a Georgia case, the high court struck down most, if not all, of such measures as ''cruel and unusual punishment'' and therefore in violation of the US Constitution.

Although the number of prisoners on death row stands at 956 as of Feb. 20, only one appears close to execution, according to Henry Schwarzchild of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The prisoner, Timothy Baldwin, has exhausted all his conviction appeals and now is seeking a US Supreme Court review. If unsuccessful, Mr. Baldwin faces execution in Louisiana's electric chair late next summer.

Since restoration of capital punishment less than six years ago, four convicted murderers have been executed - Gary M. Gilmore in Utah in January 1977 ; John Spenkelink in Florida in May 1979; Jesse W. Bishop in Nevada in October 1979; and Steven T. Judy in Indiana in March 1981.

Capital punishment critics maintain that the death penalty is ''inhumane,'' and the process by which it is imposed is ''discriminatory,'' with poor and members of minority groups particularly at a disadvantage.

The current death row population is 52.5 percent white, 41.6 percent black, 4 .9 percent Hispanic, 0.2 percent Asian, and the rest American Indians, according to Carol Palmer, a researcher for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund. Of the 956 prisoners on death row as of late last month, only 11 are women.

Boosters of capital punishment, including Massachusetts Gov. Edward J. King (D), argue that even having such a measure on the books is an effective deterrent to murders. Such conclusions are vehemently disputed by the ACLU, Amnesty International, and others in the human rights movements.

All executions by whatever means, critics contend, constitute ''cruel and unusual punishment,'' which cannot be reversed should it later be proved that the convicted murderer was innocent.

Nationally the number of condemned murderers increased by 162 over the past 11 months and by 314 since April 1980. This is nearly a 50 percent increase in just short of two years.

Except for skyjackings there is no federal death penalty, outside of the armed forces. Legislation to provide capital punishment for certain serious crimes is pending in Congress, however.

The nation's newest death penalty statute, approved in Ohio last year, replaced a somewhat similar measure struck down by the Supreme Court in 1978.

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