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Speakers laud momentum against executions


A shift in the way the public and public officials think about the death penalty has been underway for several years and is gaining momentum, according to speakers at a recent Chicago conference on the issue.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan, Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold and Sr. Helen Prejean were among those who vigorously attacked capital punishment during a two-day interfaith conference in Chicago March 9 and 10.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, the keynote speaker, also attacked capital punishment, but presented a more nuanced view than the others of the morality of the death penalty based on the church’s current position on the matter. Some 700 people participated in the events co-sponsored by DePaul University, the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty and other organizations.

Feingold, a Democrat, said there is growing evidence that the death penalty is losing its hold on the U.S. public. “It would be almost unimaginable a few years ago to foresee what is happening now,” he said. He cited recent polls showing 76 percent of Americans expressing concern that innocent persons are being put to death and 70 percent supporting a moratorium or suspension of executions.

It is becoming increasingly clear, said Feingold, that “life or death for the accused depends on the color of your skin, the ability to afford competent counsel and the district where the crime occurs.” He cited Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s recent publicized doubts about the possibility of achieving justice in capital cases. Questions concerning the administration of justice are being raised everywhere, he said, even by hard-line conservatives such as evangelist Pat Robertson and columnist George Will.

Feingold called Ryan “the catalyst” for the current “national reexamination.” It was Ryan, himself a conservative Republican, who on Jan. 31, 2000, placed a moratorium on all executions in Illinois. He has not lifted it since, while awaiting the report of an independent blue-ribbon study commission he appointed.

Ryan, who is not seeking reelection, received several standing ovations during his talk. He instated the unprecedented moratorium, he said, after realizing that more Illinois death row inmates had been exonerated (13), some by the efforts of journalism students, than had been executed in the state (12) over a two-year period. He saw that the system was shot through with flaws, he said, including incompetent defense attorneys, a gross disproportion of death sentences against black defendants, and the regular use of jailhouse informants to obtain convictions. “My faith in the system was shaken,” he said, and he decided he could no longer face the likelihood that his would be the final word authorizing the killing of an innocent person. “I know it’s not justice, I know it’s not fair,” he said, “and until I can be sure that no innocent person will be executed, no one will be executed. … Ninety-nine percent accuracy [in executions] won’t work here.”

Ryan, who was presented with an award, said he is personally studying the case of each of the 159 persons on the Illinois death row and may commute some sentences before he leaves office.

Prejean, whose best-selling book, Dead Man Walking, was turned into a successful movie and now an opera, agreed with Feingold that the wave Ryan started is gaining momentum. “How precious it is,” she said, “to hear a governor talk as he does.” Unfortunately, she declared, the United States remains among a tiny minority of countries still imposing the death penalty. She noted that Russian Premier Vladimir Putin has resisted efforts to reinstate capital punishment, reportedly stating that he prefers to leave the innocence or guilt of accused criminals “up to the Almighty.” In her own travels, said Prejean, she has discovered that the public is not wedded to the death penalty, that it’s beginning to see that execution “doesn’t heal the victims’ families, only makes more victims.”

Cardinal George said it is now clear that capital punishment is discriminatory and does not deter crime. “We live in dark and troubling times,” said George, noting that Chicago had the highest number of murders of any U.S. city in 2001.

Proponents of justice, he said, must therefore work to “create a culture of life,” but he then introduced a significant distinction. The Catholic church still maintains that the state has a right to exact death if there is no other way to protect society from criminals, he said. But, given the alternative of life in prison without any possibility of parole, that right is “an abstract right,” it is “not to be invoked and is therefore immoral.” Such a nuanced approach, George suggested, may in fact appeal to some death penalty opponents who still feel a need to advocate executions in very extreme circumstances.

Robert McClory is an NCR special report writer.

Related Web site

Death Sentence 2002

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002