98 executions in '99 reignite a capital debate

Moratorium talk grows on use of the death penalty.

This has turned out to be one of the most dramatic years in the modern history of the death penalty - and it could mark the beginning of a broader national debate over society's ultimate punishment.

Much of the drama is in the numbers. There were 98 executions in the US in 1999 - 30 more than last year and the most since 1951.

There were also high-profile cases such as Anthony Porter's. After 16 years on Illinois's death row, he was set free in February when a band of college students helped prove his innocence. After coming within 48 hours of execution, he suddenly became a national symbol of the death penalty's fallibility.

His and other exonerations have led to more calls for death-penalty moratoriums - and perhaps a softening of public backing for the practice. That's not to say the nation is headed

toward abolition. To the degree the revived debate leads to reforms in the death-penalty process, it could eventually shore up support among the newly wavering. But even if death-penalty opponents lose the argument, they welcome renewed scrutiny.

"People's attention is being focused on this issue," says Sam Jordan, head of Amnesty International's death-penalty project.

One of the things that has drawn attention is the number of executions. It's not at historic highs (in 1935, 199 people were put to death), but it is higher than at any time since the US Supreme Court reinstated the practice in 1976. To a certain extent, this reflects the "graying" of death rows: Inmates' often lengthy appeals have simply run out. In fact, the number of new death sentences handed down last year - 285 - was at a six-year low (see chart).

Another is the release of inmates. To date, 84 people, including Mr. Porter, have been set free from death row since 1973.

In Illinois, 12 death-row inmates have walked - the same number who have been executed since 1976. This has sparked a wave of reforms - the nation's most dramatic. The state legislature earmarked $17.4 million for improving the defense and prosecution of capital crimes.

Also this year, Nebraska's legislature became the first to pass a death-penalty moratorium, although the governor vetoed the bill. Montana outlawed executions of minors.

California opened a new habeas corpus center that makes lawyers available to handle death-penalty appeals.

Governors also commuted five death sentences - more than the recent yearly average of just one. The recent spate of death-row exonerations has provided some chief executives with political cover: Some no longer fear being tagged as "soft on crime" if they don't support the death penalty.

Elsewhere in the world there was also some movement on capital punishment. In June, President Boris Yeltsin commuted the sentences of 716 inmates on Russia's death row - to help speed the country's petition to join the Council of Europe. There's strong talk in Turkey of abolishing the death penalty to help its application to the European Union.

In the US, meanwhile, pressure is growing to stop executions. Germany filed suit in international court to stop the execution of two German nationals in Arizona. Despite failing to save the pair, the suit continues, arguing that the US hasn't lived up to treaty obligations in dealing with death-penalty defendants.

Finally, there's the issue of US public support. A February Gallup poll found 70 percent of Americans supporting the death penalty - still an overwhelming majority. But it represents the lowest level in 13 years.

Yet hints that some Americans are having second thoughts come amid an enduring trend of toughness toward criminals. When Florida lawmakers meet in January to debate retiring the state's electric chair, they'll also take up reforms that would limit inmates' ability to stall executions by filing appeals. Similar measures are being considered in New York and New Jersey.

Even so, death-penalty opponents remain undeterred. Amnesty's Mr. Jordan, for one, believes there is growing receptivity among the middle class to a long-posited economic argument: that the death penalty costs more than locking someone up for life. A 1993 Duke University study found that a death sentence added $2.1 million to the cost of a murder case.

Nor is he alone in ratcheting up the anti-capital-punishment campaign. Roman Catholic bishops and the National Council of Synagogues issued a strong joint statement against capital punishment this month.

Both have pledged to build grass-roots opposition in temples and parishes. The statement came this year because "the disregard for life is becoming frightening - whether in abortion, euthanasia, violence, or the death penalty," says Sister Mary Ann Walsh of US bishops.

But death-penalty advocates are marshalling forces, too. "We don't get rid of social institutions in this country when they make errors," says Dudley Sharp of the Houston-based Justice For All, countering the notion that cases like Anthony Porter's should lead to abolition. In the medical profession, "Almost 100,000 people are wrongly killed every year by errors." When institutions have problems, he says, "we fix them and move on."

Ultimately, he argues, the death penalty is about peace of mind: "No other punishment guarantees that a murderer won't harm again." Whatever the argument, next year it may ricochet from legislatures to living rooms.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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