GRIPPED by the grisly details of a sensational murder trial and a growing fear of violent crime, Canadians are debating whether to bring back the death penalty after nearly two decades without it.
The ongoing downtown Toronto trial of former accountant Paul Bernardo for the sex-related murders of two young women has given new impetus to an already widespread public demand for tougher criminal penalties, analysts say.
A poll released July 10 by the Toronto-based Angus Reid Group polling company shows that 69 percent of Canadians favor reinstating the death penalty. And crime currently ranked second on Canadians' list of top concerns, next to the economy.
Jesse O'Connor, from Aurora, Ont., who has traveled to Toronto for the weekend stands outside the Bernardo courthouse gazing through the glass doors. He would like to see reinstatement of the death penalty. ''It's true that Canada's image of itself is less violent than America's,'' he says. ''But life is starting to change here. People are getting fed up with crime. People want to get tough. And [adopting] the death penalty would be a good place to start.''
That view is in sync with Reform Party leader Preston Manning, who is turning up the heat on the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Mr. Manning is campaigning for a binding national referendum this fall on reinstating the death penalty. Critics accuse Manning of exploiting the emotions surrounding the Bernardo trial, which has been called Canada's trial of the century. But Manning is unapologetic.
''We need to send a clear and unequivocal signal to those among us who formulate and carry out deliberate plans to stalk, capture, abuse, and kill other human beings,'' he wrote in a recent opinion article in the Globe and Mail.
Canada's Parliament under then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau abolished the death penalty in 1976. The last execution, by hanging, was in 1962.
Canada's toughest penalty, for first-degree murder, is life in prison without parole for 25 years. Even in such cases, however, good behavior makes early parole possible after 15 years.
That's too soon, says Manning, who argues that Canadian law does not deal harshly enough with criminals.
The death-penalty issue has become a sort of fracture-line issue that, like the debate over gun control, could split the ruling Liberal Party - or else make it appear soft on crime if it opposes a referendum.
''There has always been broad popular support for a death penalty in Canada,'' says Philip Stenning, professor of criminology at the University of Toronto. ''On the other hand, we've had parliamentary votes on it and it has been consistently voted down. This is a common phenomenon in Canada - representatives in Parliament don't entirely reflect the majority view on this matter.''
Canada's last big debate on the issue was in 1987, when former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney rallied his party to defeat by 148 to 127 a bill to reinstate capital punishment.
Some critics worry that innocent people would be convicted and executed.
Still, sentiment for the death penalty runs surprisingly deep in a country whose citizens tend to distinguish theirs as a ''kinder, gentler'' society than that in the United States. Professor Stenning says violent crime is falling across Canada. Yet pollsters show fear of crime growing nationwide.
''I just think it would act as a deterrent [to crime],'' says Connie Liu, standing outside the courthouse where Bernardo is on trial. People who commit such crimes [like the double murder Bernardo is alleged to have committed] ''should get what they deserve,'' she says.