The Executing of Executions

The death penalty usually wins base-rock support from conservatives, either Democratic or Republican. Yet a number of conservative voices are recognizing that the way capital punishment is administered needs rethinking, if not the very act itself.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson recently called for a moratorium on the death penalty until proper procedures are in place to prevent discrimination against minorities and poor people who can't afford good lawyers. And conservative columnist George Will has voiced qualms about the government's ability to fairly carry it out.

Not least, a conservative US Supreme Court this week overturned two death sentences. It didn't move away from the longstanding ruling on the constitutionality of capital punishment, but it did correct procedural flaws, such as prosecutorial misconduct. It also limited the ability of federal judges to override state-court decisions against death-row inmates.

So far, the 2000 presidential campaign has not focused much on the subject. Vice President Al Gore, like President Clinton, supports the death penalty. The Republican contender, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, may be queried about it, since his state leads the nation in executions.

It was another Republican governor, George Ryan of Illinois, who put the death penalty back on the national agenda in January, when he declared a moratorium in his state. Mr. Ryan was deeply disturbed that 13 death-row inmates in Illinois had been proven innocent in recent years.

Nationwide, 620 people have been executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Over the same period, 87 condemned people have been exonerated because of new evidence. Mr. Bush is not impressed by such figures, saying he's confident no innocent people have been executed in Texas.

Having second thoughts about the fairness of the penalty is a good first step, even though the ethical problems goes much deeper than how it's administered. The next step is to understand that society has a higher duty to always affirm life, not death.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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