The D.C. tea party

November 10, 1992

District of Columbia residents struck a blow for self-determination on Election Day by overwhelming a congressionally mandated referendum on the death penalty. Despite a homicide rate that has reached epidemic levels in recent years, Washingtonians voted against capital punishment by a whopping 2-to-1 margin that surprised even opponents of the proposed law.

Much of the credit for defeating the measure goes to the District's political and religious leaders, who managed to convince their constituents that the referendum forced on them by Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama represented unwarranted federal meddling in local affairs.

Senator Shelby attached a rider requiring the death penalty vote to the District's annual appropriations bill after one of his Senate aides was murdered during a robbery outside his Capitol Hill home.

This newspaper does not support the movement for D.C. statehood, but we do have sympathy with District residents' impatience with congressional meddling in their affairs. In fact, we suspect that many voters who support the death penalty voted against this measure simply because they resent the Congress' attempt to impose it on them.

While Washington's political elite emphasized the practical dangers of allowing Congress to micro-manage local affairs, the city's religious leaders stressed the moral objections to capital punishment, arguing that it is a barbaric throwback unworthy of a society that wishes to deal humanely with its citizens and that invariably it is applied disproportionately to minorities and the poor.

Research, moreover, repeatedly has shown the death penalty has little or no deterrent effect. On the contrary, there appears to be a direct relationship between capital punishment and homicide, with the states having the most executions also having the highest number of reported homicides. Washington is an unfortunate exception to the general trend that states without death penalty statutes usually have the fewest homicides.

The fact that Washingtonians decisively voted down the death penalty probably means the issue won't come up again for at least a decade.

In the meantime, District officials must now come up with practical strategies that realistically address the deadly cycle of violence plaguing their city.

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