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Cry for death penalty moratorium meets resistance

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked President Clinton in a Dec. 5 letter to commute the sentences of 31 people now awaiting the death penalty in federal prisons. The first execution of a federal prisoner since 1963 was scheduled to take place Dec. 12.

The Fiorenza letter was one more element in a growing movement among religious groups to cut the number of executions in the United States. At the state level, the numbers keep climbing.

Seventy religious leaders, including Fiorenza, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and Bishop James C. Timlin of Scranton, Pa., signed another letter to Clinton noting that “the overwhelming majority of communities of faith are united in their opposition to the death penalty.”

Religious groups increasingly are opposed to state executions and are pressing for at least a moratorium on the death penalty until the punishment can be more fully studied.

Any progress in that direction will run squarely into the growing practice of state as executioner. Nowhere does the state take on this grim task with such apparent enthusiasm as it does in Texas, under the leadership of presidential hopeful George W. Bush, who could be president by the time this paper reaches you. As of this writing, Texas has executed 38 people this year -- a record for the state and the country. At least one more execution was scheduled in Texas for this year, and seven are already scheduled for the coming year.

Bush’s dalliance with pro-life themes clearly stops at the death-house door.

He is not alone, of course. Clinton and Al Gore, too, have chosen to ignore the mounting evidence of the gross inequities in the administration of the death penalty; of the clear mistakes that are regularly made in convictions; and of the slipshod legal representation, another category in which Texas is notable, that often befalls poor defendants of color.

The Clinton administration would not consider a moratorium while more data is gathered and studied, even as its own justice department recently catalogued the embarrassing disparities in application of the ultimate penalty.

The good news is that the debate over the severity of punishment throughout the justice system and use of the death penalty seems to be spreading widely.

Cleveland Judge Daniel Gaul explained that it is easy for the issue of crime and punishment to be exploited because public officials do not want to be labeled soft on crime, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“But I’m not going to be manipulated by anyone calling me soft on crime,” he said. “The fact is, no one wants to stand up for the rights of defendants until they’re in a jam themselves. No one wants to speak on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged unless they know someone who’s poor and disadvantaged. I think that’s an indictment of our society.”

On the matter of capital punishment, Gaul said he was not speaking about releasing murderers. “What we’re talking about is not having the state engage in institutionalized violence. It sends the wrong message. It’s not restorative justice; it’s vengeance. It’s not a deterrent. So what is it? It’s retribution.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000