Friday, 29 December 2006

Death penalty support wanes as life without parole gains public favor

WASHINGTON LETTER Dec-29-2006 (840 words) Backgrounder. With photo and graphic. xxxn

Death penalty support wanes as life without parole gains public favor

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As 2006 came to an end, capital punishment was making headlines for what it is not doing: overall declining use, waning support and recent challenges at the state levels about how it is conducted.

Shifting public support for capital punishment is a "ray of good news" for Frank McNeirney, co-founder of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, who said he hopes the trend continues.

Death penalty statistics in a year-end report from the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington offered reasons for optimism among opponents of capital punishment. For starters, the group noted the results of a newly released Gallup Poll showing that more Americans support alternative sentences of life without parole over the death penalty as punishment for murder.

The center also reported that U.S. death sentences are the lowest they have been in 30 years; executions have sharply declined and the number of people on death row has decreased. During 2006, 53 people were executed, down from 60 in 2005 and 98 in 1999, the report said.

McNeirney, who founded Catholics Against Capital Punishment with his wife, Ellen, 14 years ago in their Maryland home, said the change in attitude against the death penalty has been developing over recent years as more people, and jury members in particular, have become aware of the availability of life without parole sentences. Only Alaska and New Mexico currently do not have life without parole sentences, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The 2006 Gallup Poll shows that two-thirds of Americans still support the death penalty, but for the first time in two decades it found that Americans by a 1 percent margin -- 48 percent to 47 percent -- prefer life without parole over capital punishment.

The slim difference in opinion is more of a shift when compared with figures from the 2005 Gallup Poll which showed that 56 percent of Americans preferred the death penalty and only 39 percent supported life without parole.

The overall change in attitude toward capital punishment also reflects a shift that has occurred in recent years among Catholics, McNeirney told Catholic News Service Dec. 21. In 2005, a poll conducted by Zogby International for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found Catholics almost equally divided on the issue, with 48 percent favoring it and 47 percent opposing it. The shift was a marked difference from 1994, when about 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty, with Catholics favoring it by about the same margin.

McNeirney attributes the change in part to Pope John Paul II's clear message against the death penalty during his 1999 visit to St. Louis when he described capital punishment as "both cruel and unnecessary" and noted that "modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

McNeirney also noted that the anti-death penalty stance has recently gained new support from pro-life groups that had previously focused primarily on anti-abortion measures and from politicians on both ends of the political spectrum.

But it's not only political and religious leaders who are raising questions about capital punishment. Currently, a number of court rulings and several state challenges to the death penalty's lethal-injection procedure are holding up executions in several states, including California, Maryland, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Florida.

Maryland's Court of Appeals ordered a temporary halt in executions Dec. 19, saying the state had improperly followed protocol for lethal injections. The ruling came on the heels of other death penalty controversies across the country.

On Dec. 15, a California federal judge ruled that the state's lethal injection procedure violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The same day, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suspended state executions two days after an execution failed to work within 15 minutes and a second lethal injection was given, prolonging the execution to 34 minutes.

Currently 37 states administer lethal injections as the preferred execution method but the procedure is getting closer scrutiny following concerns that it may cause unnecessary pain and suffering as documented by the April 2006 Human Rights Watch report, "So Long as They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States."

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear four death penalty cases in 2007.

Activists in North Carolina and California have been trying unsuccessfully to promote a moratorium on state executions while legislative studies examine death penalty procedures. In 2005, New Jersey became the first jurisdiction to enact such a moratorium that is in place until January 2007.

Celeste Fitzgerald, founder and director of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said she hopes the commission's findings on the fairness and accuracy of capital punishment are released before the state's moratorium expires.

During a recent death penalty program sponsored by the Metuchen Diocese, she told participants that faith organizations across the country are "watching what happens in New Jersey very closely."

"This is a moment in New Jersey," she added. "I ask that you help us seize it."

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