Support for executions losing steam

December 05, 2005|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- When Bill Clinton was running for president in January 1992, he left the campaign trail to fly back to Arkansas for the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, convicted of killing two people, including a police officer, in 1981. Mr. Clinton's trip back home was a deliberate tactic designed to prove that he was no criminal-coddling liberal but, instead, a hard-nosed Democrat who knew how to deal with vicious predators.

That was then.

On Tuesday, lame-duck Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for president, commuted the death sentence of Robin Lovitt, convicted of the murder of a pool hall night manager in 1998. If Mr. Warner seeks the presidency, the commutation is unlikely to hurt him.

Indeed, Mr. Warner's ally, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, won the governor's race last month despite his opposition to the death penalty - a stance his opponent, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore, denounced in attack ads.

In the 13 years since Mr. Clinton made a point of upholding an execution, public support for the death penalty has declined dramatically. According to Gallup, support for capital punishment reached its apex in 1994, when 80 percent of Americans said they favored it. Now, only 64 percent do.

The sharp nationwide drop in violent crime has no doubt reduced the appeal of eye-for-an-eye justice. So has the realization that the criminal justice system sometimes - in convicting the innocent - takes the wrong eye.

When Mr. Clinton made his stand, urban areas were still reeling from the crack-induced wave of violence that started in the 1980s. And Republicans were still pounding Democrats with charges that they were soft on crime.

An infamous example of that strategy dates to the 1988 presidential campaign, when George H. W. Bush ran an incendiary TV ad tarring his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, with the furlough of a black inmate, Willie Horton, who later raped a white woman. Mr. Dukakis, who opposed capital punishment, also flubbed an answer to a question about the death penalty in a televised debate, leaving the impression that he had little empathy with the victims of violent crime. He couldn't overcome the soft-on-crime label.

But violent crime is no longer the hot-button issue it was back then. Murders have fallen sharply around the country as the crack cocaine trade has dropped off and the population of young men, who commit most violent crimes, has aged. In addition, tougher sentencing laws have filled prisons with men - and women - predisposed to violence, taking many repeat offenders off the streets. Safer streets have reduced public demand for harsh justice.

But perhaps nothing has tempered the demand for capital punishment more than the stark realization that the innocent sometimes end up on death row. , Over the past decade, more than 100 wrongly convicted people have been released from death row with the help of DNA evidence.

For decades, social scientists have produced studies showing that the death sentence is not meted out fairly, that a murderer is more likely to get capital punishment for killing a white person than a black person and that many felons on death row have not had the benefit of decent lawyers. But those "soft" studies haven't made much of a dent in the public consciousness.

The certainty of hard science has. With the release of so many who were wrongly convicted - and with the implicit understanding that others on death row may also be innocent - Americans have had to come to terms with a discomfiting truth: We have probably executed the innocent. And when we do that, we become murderers ourselves.

The U.S. Supreme Court has prohibited the death penalty for the mentally retarded and for people younger than 18. Perhaps, over the next decade or so, states will do away with it altogether. The advantages of capital punishment are simply not worth its huge downside - a mistake that cannot be corrected.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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