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Death penalty moratorium is good first step

The growing disillusionment with the death penalty among local officials has yet to have significant effect on the national scene, but increasing grassroots dissatisfaction should be a hopeful sign for foes of capital punishment.

Calls for a death penalty moratorium are being issued at the local government level in such places as Charlotte, N.C., according to an Oct. 31 report in The New York Times. The story reports that Charlotte is one of seven municipalities in North Carolina that have approved a resolution calling for a moratorium. And this is a state that has traditionally supported the death penalty.

Other cities that have approved similar measures include Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore and San Francisco.

They, in turn, join Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican who supports capital punishment but who called for a moratorium that was adopted by the state after it was discovered that 13 people on death row were innocent.

“When you realize that the governor of Illinois, who is a Republican, called for a moratorium because there were 13 innocent people on death row -- well, that raises a question for everyone,” Lynn Wheeler, a Republican who favors the death penalty but supports Charlotte’s moratorium resolution, told the Times.

Much of the battle against the death penalty was based on moral arguments and was spurred by the popular writings of such advocates as Sr. Helen Prejean, whose book, Dead Man Walking, and the movie based on the book, provoked wide discussion of the issue. More recently, however, the discussion seems to be motivated by Americans’ awareness of the gross inequities in the use of capital punishment, which is administered disproportionately to blacks and poor people.

Those without means do not get the same quality of legal advice and representation as those who have money.

Further, people are being awakened by discoveries such as those that inspired the Illinois moratorium. A closer look at trial records and use of DNA evidence often show that convicted killers were badly represented by their attorneys or simply innocent on the basis of irrefutable science.

A combination of forces are joining to poke through Americans’ complacency in the face of the escalation in the number of executions since 1976. That year the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment and approved several newly written state statutes.

In the past, support of the death penalty was always equated with being tough on crime. Now it is increasingly equated with a risky and unfair use of law. Americans have become uneasy with the states’ rush to kill. The growing movement toward a moratorium is a sensible first step toward a total ban of this barbaric practice.

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000