not long ago, death penalty ac-tivists in the United States were toiling in an environment where politicians embraced executions as evidence they were tough on crime, and where the death penalty had such overwhelming support that it barely registered as a debatable issue.Now, particularly after Illinois pro-death penalty governor George Ryan's declaration of a moratorium on executions in that state, the movement to end the death penalty has been propelled forward. Six states are currently conducting reviews, as is the federal government.
For the first time in decades, it's arguable that abolitionists have the upper hand. Things got to this point by a combination of hard work -- on the part of activists, lawyers, journalists and the civil rights and religious communities -- and, as in any movement, an element of timing and luck. A look at how the movement to abolish the death penalty has changed gives insights into how strong the movement is, and where it might be headed.
Last year 98 people were executed in the United States -- more than in any year since death penalty laws were put back on the books in 1976. By comparison, 63 people were put to death in the entire decade after the death penalty was reinstated. Executions have seen their sharpest increases in the 90s, as have the rolls of death row inmates (currently at more than 3,600).
According to Amnesty International, only China and the Democratic Republic of Congo executed more people than the United States in 1998, and the U.S. is the world leader in executions of prisoners who were under 18 at the time of their capital crime.
The increase in executions and death sentences can be traced to a politically motivated get-tough-on-crime spree embraced by politicians from both major parties that dates back to Nixon and went through a revival in the early 90s. "The death penalty was the poster issue of the whole tough-on-crime movement," says actor and activist Mike Farrell, president of Death Penalty Focus in California.
In 1988, the federal death penalty was revived for murder committed in the course of large-scale drug trafficking. Under President Clinton, the Violent Crime Control And Law Enforcement Act of 1994 expanded the federal death penalty to some 60 additional crimes, including several that didn't involve murder: treason, espionage and large-scale drug trafficking.
Two years later, following the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism And Effective Death Penalty Act. In an effort to shorten the time between conviction and execution, the law limited the opportunity for evidentiary hearings and allowed only a single habeas corpus filing in federal court.
The outlook even a few years ago was bleak. "You'd go to executions -- I even went to double executions -- and nothing was happening," says Bill Ryan, who helped form the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project. "It was frustrating."
Abolitionists haven't suddenly won the ear of Americans because they're presenting new arguments. More than anything else, it's been the recent parade of exonerated men marching off of death row -- 13 of them in the past two years -- that has triggered movement on this issue. "The issue of innocence, the presence of a number of innocent people who have been freed from death row and stories people have now heard -- these convinced people outside of the usual opponents that there was something wrong," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
The debate over the death penalty, which in the past has focused on ethics and morality, now centres on the justice system as a whole. "I don't think people are being morally convinced that the death penalty is wrong," Dieter says. "That's not what's changing. What's changing is a practical, fact-based concern about how the death penalty is applied. That's where the numbers are shifting."
That has meant that abolitionists are suddenly finding they may have at least temporary new allies in the fight who have no moral objections to the death penalty itself. Governor Ryan has repeatedly said he believes the death penalty is a reasonable societal response to the most serious crimes, and his Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment is charged with making "recommendations and proposals designed to further ensure that the application and administration of the death penalty in Illinois is just, fair and accurate."
The possibility that the steam in their movement might be diverted to creating a system that kills only the guilty and protects the innocent has not eluded activists. Lawmakers and others who have benefited politically from supporting the death penalty, Farrell says, have sensed public concern and have thus taken up the issue, but are "eviscerating the moratorium by insisting on "reform.'"
It could even be questioned whether the notion of a moratorium is already a dilution of the stronger stance of abolition. That's something that doesn't seem to worry most abolitionists. "Abolition and a moratorium -- it's the same thing in essence," says Robert Drinan, a Georgetown University Law School professor. "If you have a moratorium, it is unlikely that you'll ever go back and execute people."
But this confidence is not necessarily shared by others. "I think there's a very good possibility that you'll see executions resume in Illinois," says Chicago Tribune reporter Steve Mills, who co-authored the series Failure Of The Death Penalty In Illinois, as well as a recent investigative series on Texas's capital punishment system that ran the week before Gary Graham's execution. "I think it would be pretty hard to come back and say, "OK, we fixed the system. Now let's go ahead,'" Mills says. "But I think it's possible that politicians will say that."
Changes in public opinion may allow politicians an opportunity to reconsider their stand. A Gallup poll taken in February 2000 registered support for the death penalty at a 19-year low. But that just means support is overwhelming rather than nearly unanimous: 66 per cent surveyed said they favoured the death penalty for people convicted of murder.
But recent polls show that similar majorities support a moratorium. Even in Texas, which accounts for 33 executions so far this year (about half the national total), a survey showed that 3 out of 4 respondents said the state should declare a moratorium on death sentences in cases that might be affected by DNA testing.
In a year when the Democratic party might have anticipated a shift in public opinion on this issue, it went in the other direction and inserted a pro-death penalty plank in the formerly neutral platform. Al Gore has been a long-time believer in the death penalty, though he did admit to feeling "uncomfortable" with the findings of a Columbia University study released in June that showed that in two of every three death penalty cases between 1973 and 1995 the sentence was reversed on appeal because of errors.
George W. Bush has largely escaped public criticism, despite his sardonic, loud claims that Texas may have executed innocent prisoners on his watch. He plowed ahead with state killings in Texas, signing off on execution orders at the rate of about one per week during the presidential campaign.
With the innocence issue playing such a central role in the shift in death penalty politics, there is one obvious remaining task for abolitionists -- to prove that an innocent person has been executed. That's the Holy Grail in this fight, and perhaps the one thing that could irreversibly alter public opinion on the death penalty.
From In These Times