Washington's death penalty debate

October 29, 1992

The uneasy relationship between the District of Columbia and Congress, which retains ultimate authority over the city's affairs, is headed for a showdown Nov. 3, when District residents vote on a congressionally mandated referendum on whether to reinstate capital punishment in Washington.

The referendum was forced on reluctant city officials by Congress last summer, after lawmakers decided the District was moving too slowly to combat epidemic rates of violent crime.

If approved, the law would give the District one of the harshest statutes in the nation, making most convicted murderers eligible for execution. It would allow executions of juveniles and mentally retarded adults, two groups that most states with death penalty laws exclude. Since the District has no facility for carrying out executions, it presumably would contract out such cases to states that do.

Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly's administration and most of the District's church and civic leaders have vigorously resisted new death penalty legislation on practical and moral grounds. They also argue, persuasively, that Congress' imposition of the referendum constitutes an unwarranted meddling in District affairs. Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama introduced the bill in Congress forcing a referendum on the issue after one of his aides was killed during a robbery outside his Capitol Hill residence.

Though Washington has one of the nation's most liberal electorates, polls show opinion almost evenly divided on the death penalty legislation. Many residents apparently are so frustrated with the inability of police to make a dent in violent crime they are willing to try almost anything.

This newspaper consistently has opposed capital punishment on principle because:

1) The death penalty is a barbaric throwback that has no place in a humane society.

2) It has never been shown to deter crime.

3) It has proven impossible to administer in a non-racially discriminatory manner.

The world-wide trend has been away from capital punishment; among the advanced industrial nations, only the U.S and South Africa continue to impose the death penalty.

City officials are furious at Congress for what they see as a deliberate pandering to local anger at crime. No doubt powerful grass-roots support exists for the measure.

Yet we believe District residents would ultimately regret this ill-conceived law, were it to pass. The case cries out for clear-eyed reason to counter the regretable impulse to enact flawed policies purely out of frustration and fear.

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