A pledge to affirm life - even from the grave Declaration of Life makes your wishes known: spare your murderer from the death penalty.

December 06, 1998|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

Should I die as result of a violent crime, I request that the person found guilty not be subject to the death penalty under any circumstances.

Think about making this pledge. Would you want your killer's life spared? Do you want your voice heard from the grave?

Sister Camille D'Arienzo does. "Not in my name do you take a life ... not in my name," says the Roman Catholic nun from Brooklyn, N.Y., who has drafted and championed the pledge, known as the Declaration of Life.

Featured in last week's People magazine, Sister D'Arienzo's anti-death penalty movement is enjoying a sudden spritz of attention. She began the pledge drive in 1994, and by her estimate, more than 50,000 Americans have signed the wallet-sized cards. Like an organ-donor card, people now carry another directive in their back pockets: I believe it is morally wrong for my death to be the reason for the killing of another human being, it reads.

"This is a personal statement from people who feel powerless - people who are in the minority," says Sister D'Arienzo, 66, citing polls indicating 70 percent of Americans favor the death penalty. "The card minimizes the powerlessness we feel."

More than 3,500 people are on U.S. death rows, including 16 inmates in Maryland, where convicted killer Tyrone X Gilliam died by lethal injection Nov. 16. The victim's mother wrote a letter to Gov. Parris Glendening requesting that he spare Gilliam's life. The victim's father wrote asking the opposite.

Such is the moral quandary found even among the closest of family members when the issue is capital punishment.

"My own sister - who is so giving and so wonderful - she supports the death penalty," says Sister D'Arienzo, a lifelong opponent of putting criminals to death. "We don't talk about it."

The pledge card does pose a gruesome yet novel hypothetical - imagining your own violent death while officially recording the desire to spare your killer's life.

"We have a copy of the card here," says Brian Henninger at the Washington-based National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "You can either sign it like a petition or have it witnessed and notarized like a living will." Last year, Henninger signed the pledge, which was available on the coalition's Web site.

The declaration is not legally binding, but requests that it be admitted in any trial of any person "charged with my homicide." The card actually summarizes a two-page statement, which calls for family members or friends to deliver the statement to the attorney representing the accused killer. It requests copies of the card be sent to all newspapers, radio and television stations where "my homicide took place."

The National Coalition has hundreds of the pledges on file, but Henninger doesn't know of any ever admitted in a capital murder trial. Some might call the pledge gimmicky. "But to the people who sign it, it's a very big deal," Henninger says. "It forces you to sit down and think of the ramifications."

Catherine Brennan, a Baltimore attorney, signed the pledge early PTC this year. She recognizes its symbolic if not practical value. The wallet card (secured in her safe deposit box) delivers an edict that will, by definition, survive her.

Her killer, Brennan says, should not die at the hands of the state.

"I don't want you doing this disgusting act in my name," says Brennan, 28. Despite its personal nature, the pledge is not a solitary exercise, she says. She would hope her family and her community would "make sure no one dishonors me."

Sister D'Arienzo knows the pledge card has no legal clout but does have political worth. She's keeper of the pledge's master list, which has attracted national attention and celebrities. Actors Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen have signed Declarations of Life. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo also has publicly supported the movement.

Sister D'Arienzo, in fact, started the pledge movement during the 1994 New York governor's race, when Cuomo was defeated by pro-death-penalty candidate George Pataki. New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed by a gunman, also has signed a pledge card.

In the end, the card speaks for itself - and the deceased.

"We know we really can't jam our ideas down anyone's throat," Sister D'Arienzo says. "All we can say is, I respect your convictions and opposition, but I want you to know how deeply I feel."

More information about the Declaration of Life Pledge is available by writing to the Convent of Mercy, 273 Willoughby Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11205.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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