MORAL and legal pitfalls continue to surround the imposition of the death penalty. And until some of these can be worked out, it would seem that a worldwide moratorium on executions would be justified. A new report by the London-based Amnesty International calls on the 100 governments worldwide that still impose capital punishment to abolish it for humanitarian reasons. Amnesty International has long opposed the death penalty as cruel and coldblooded and stressed that its use flies in the face of the basic values of civilized nations.
This is probably reason enough to call a halt to it. There are those, however, who firmly believe that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime and that those who commit murder and engage in other violent acts, such as rape, should pay for anti-societal behavior with their own lives.
The religious community is divided on capital punishment.
Fundamentalists, for example, often stress that a ``sin against God'' must result in an extreme penalty. Other groups, such as the 9 million-member United Methodist Church in the United States, oppose the death penalty, taking an official stand that ``retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life ... violates our deepest belief in God as the creator and redeemer of humankind.''
Amnesty International's 268-page study makes the points that the death penalty is imposed in an arbitrary and capricious manner even in enlightened areas of the world; it is used as political retribution; and it is meted out disproportionately to the have-nots of society - including the poor, racial minorities, and the powerless, notably children.
In recent years, for example, thousands of adults and children have been executed for political reasons in Iran. And according to Amnesty International, there has not been a single case where a defendant brought up before an Iranian Islamic revolutionary court on a political charge has been allowed the services of a lawyer or was permitted to file an appeal after being condemned to death.
Similar reports have come from Iraq, where there is evidence of confessions extracted under torture, and the bodies of children as young as 14 have been returned to relatives upon payment of ``execution fees.''
Juvenile offenders in Barbados, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the United States are also subject to the death penalty.
The issue of the legality of executing those who committed capital crimes while still under age 18 is just now coming to a head in the US. The Supreme Court heard arguments in late March addressing whether the Constitution forbids the states' putting to death 16- and 17-year-old murderers.
Lawyers for defendants argued that there are ``evolving standards of decency'' that reject the ``deterrent or retributive'' value of capital punishment for minors. It was also stressed that recent congressional legislation aimed at illegal drug trafficking specifically exempts those under 18 from the death penalty. This federal statute, they reasoned, suggests a ``national consensus'' against executing the young.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, cautioned the justices to avoid ``freezing into constitutional law'' a prohibition against executing juveniles who commit murder.
A ruling, expected this spring, could affect laws in 18 states that allow juveniles to be sentenced to death. Last term the justices, in effect, ruled out the death penalty for murderers under 16.
Although the issue as it relates to the young is particularly critical, the broader question is whether the death penalty is inhuman and cruel. Many argue that executions themselves - whether or not attended by violence and terror - are not worthy of a civilized society.
Amnesty International points out that about 80 nations have abolished capital punishment or ceased to apply death penalty laws. East Germany, for example, called a halt to all executions in 1987. More recently, Libya adopted a constitutional document aimed at abolition. And the Soviet Union took steps to limit capital punishment to certain serious offenses committed by men and to eliminate it altogether for women.