THE decision by the prosecution not to seek the death penalty against O.J. Simpson is justified on its purely legal merits, but it is already being criticized. Advocates for battered women, for example, argue that the decision shows more concern for the rights of the accused than for his murdered wife.
The decision had a practical effect as well: A jury was unlikely to convict Mr. Simpson - a smiling, friendly, familiar face on television and in films - knowing that a guilty verdict would mean his death.
Did Simpson's wealth, which allows him to mount a strong defense, also play a role? Did lobbying by black groups, who - with justification - feel the death penalty is unfairly carried out against blacks? All these factors once again show how capriciously this penalty can be applied.
Over the summer, capital punishment persistently crept into the news: A triple execution in Arkansas symbolized the current urge to speed up executions of those on death rows; New York Gov. Mario Cuomo was criticized for waffling in his opposition to capital punishment by suggesting the question be put to voters in a referendum; the crime bill added death penalties for various federal offenses; and, most recently, Gov. William Weld has introduced a death penalty bill in Massachusetts after the tragic shooting death of a state trooper.
With crime by far the top issue on voters' minds, politicians are looking for a way to show they are concerned too. Unfortunately, ``Execute 'em'' has become the sine qua non for showing ``I'm tough on crime.''
For those who oppose the death penalty, the fall political season will be a time to courageously put forward crime-fighting proposals that don't include more-frequent use of this barbaric practice. Candidates must tell the truth: Life sentences without parole are at least as effective in deterring crime and far less expensive.
Fear of crime, inflamed by certain elements of both the press and the entertainment industry, is causing more and more Americans to favor capital punishment. But fighting crime shouldn't mean that government itself adds to the death toll.