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Memo to Clinton: On Good Friday, declare death penalty moratorium


On Good Friday, when the whole world is reflecting on an innocent man who was crucified unjustly, President Clinton should issue a moratorium on the federal death penalty.

Clinton has approved of the moratorium imposed by Republican Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, but he stated that there are no reasons why similar action is needed at the federal level.

The president is in error.

There are many justifications for the moratorium. The federal government now has 21 persons on death row; 15 are African-American. There are an additional 188 federal prisoners charged with a capital crime; 98 are black. This disparity in persons of color is worse than in most of the states.

There are also other reasons to doubt whether the 200-plus persons charged with a capital offense by the federal government have had competent counsel, due process and fair treatment.

The administration says that a review is underway of the case of every person charged with a federal capital offense, but it’s far from clear that the review will be thorough and impartial. Leading criminal defense lawyers have written to the president, asking to be informed about the criteria for concluding that defendants received fair treatment. No satisfactory response has been received.

Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, the President of the U.S. Catholic Conference, sent a strong letter on Feb. 9, urging Clinton to suspend the death penalty. The letter, endorsed by all of America’s Catholic bishops, echoes the views of a wider group of individuals and organizations that want a moratorium on the death penalty.

Clinton, consequently, would not be adopting an extreme position if he decreed a moratorium on Good Friday. He would be reflecting the growing view that there is something inherently unfair about the process extended to the 3,500 persons on death row. The process is infected with incompetent counsel, bias based on race and inadequate access to witnesses and experts for defendants accused of capital crimes.

Clinton and his advisers will clearly be reluctant to take on such a controversial issue in an election year. Al Gore and Hillary Clinton have never spoken out against the death penalty. Political advisers will tell the president that if he wants to help his wife and his heir apparent, there’s no reason to raise this explosive topic before the election Nov. 7.

But if all that matters is political calculation, why stop at mere silence? Some persons in the Democratic Party will probably want to set a date before the election for the first federal execution since 1963. They believe the Democrats will look strong on law and order if they carry out an execution. The man scheduled to die does not seem to have many appealing features: Juan Raul Garza killed three men in his drug-selling mafia and has exhausted all his appeals.

If the White House denied clemency and let the execution go forward, would Al Gore and Democratic candidates benefit politically? It is not clear. Some 70 percent of the American people approve of the death penalty, although this is the lowest figure in 13 years. But every poll reveals that when people are informed that the alternative is life in prison without the possibility of release, only some 40 percent approve of the death penalty.

In Illinois, a dozen death row inmates were released because of new evidence, making it obvious to even the most ardent supporter of the death penalty that innocent people were bound to die unless executions were halted so the system could be reformed. Democratic political gurus seem to feel that in the absence of such a clear-cut situation at the federal level, halting executions will hurt the party’s candidates.

Here again, however, the political fallout is not as clear as it might seem. The dramatic announcement of a moratorium, for example, would surely require George W. Bush to justify the fairness of the 119 executions carried out in his years as governor. The Clinton administration would receive applause from the Catholic community and even from the pope. Other religious groups would join, since the vast majority of religious bodies in the United States now want a moratorium and indeed the abolition of the death penalty.

Yet there is more at stake than politics, because the death penalty is a moral scourge. And when the history of its abolition is written, there could be a footnote about how Clinton’s courage on Good Friday in the year 2000 marked the beginning of the end.

If Clinton agrees with the Catholic bishops and declares a moratorium on the death penalty, he will secure a place in history as an individual whose convictions, conscience and courage reduced barbarism in the world.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000