Reuters, Jan. 12, 2003
BY RANDALL MIKKELSEN
WASHINGTON – Despite appeals by death penalty opponents, Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s decision to spare the lives of 167 condemned prisoners is not likely to change President Bush’s strong support for capital punishment.
Instead, efforts against the death penalty are likely to focus on the states, under whose laws the vast majority of America’s death row population of more than 3,000 were sentenced. Critics say the system puts the innocent at risk of execution and is rife with racial disparities.
“He (Bush) just doesn’t get it. He thinks that the death penalty system is perfect,” David Elliot, spokesman for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said on Sunday. Nevertheless, he said, “2003 is going to be the year of death penalty reform in the United States.”
Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International on Sunday urged Bush take a “moral stand” against the death penalty in the wake of Ryan’s decision to commute the sentences of everyone sentenced to death in the state. The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Bush presided over 152 executions during his six years as governor of Texas, and brushed off international protests as the federal government resumed executions in 2001 after a 38-year lapse.
The U.S. president has voiced strong support for the death penalty, his administration has aggressively pursued capital punishment in last year’s Washington-area sniper killings, and public support remains solid despite some doubt over the death penalty’s fairness.
Ryan said on Saturday, two days before he was to leave office, he emptied the Illinois death row because the state’s system was “arbitrary, capricious and therefore immoral.”
Investigations had revealed that 13 condemned prisoners in the state were innocent.
BUSH SEES DEATH PENALTY AS DETERRENT
Bush believes the death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in June 2001, after the execution of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh, the first federal execution since 1963.
Bush rejected a storm of international protests over the execution, which came before a trip to Europe.
“I understand the death penalty creates a lot of emotions in most people,” Bush said at the time. “But in a democracy the issues are debated, the laws are on the books and it’s up to the executive branch to adhere to the laws, which I will do as president.”
In 2002, 71 prisoners were executed in the United States, up from 66 in 2001. The death row population, as of Oct. 1, 2002, was 3,697, up from 3,581 in 2001 when the population showed a slight dip for the first time since 1978. Almost all were sentenced under state laws.
Executions resumed in 1977 after a Supreme Court ruling cleared the way to ending a 10-year moratorium.
A Gallup poll taken in October of last year, during the height of the highly publicized wave of sniper killings, showed 70 percent of the American public supported the death penalty, a figure that has held relatively constant over recent years.
However, that is below a high of 80 percent in 1994, and the increased use of DNA evidence to exonerate condemned prisoners has fueled criticism of the death penalty’s fairness. In May, 2001, 40 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup believed the death penalty was administered unfairly.
Elliot said state-by-state efforts to reform the death penalty this year will seek measures such as moratoriums on executions, better legal representation for defendants, and requirements that confessions be videotaped.
Although Ryan is a Republican, other members of Bush’s party have shown less interest in halting executions.
The new Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said on Sunday he did not favor a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty. “I would allow each governor to examine this issue,” he said.
In Maryland, where Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening imposed a moratorium on executions last year, incoming Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich has said he would lift the suspension.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft last November steered to Virginia the first trial of the two accused Washington-area snipers, out of a belief it would be easier to obtain and carry out a death sentence under the laws of that state.
“It’s imperative that the ultimate sanctions be available for those who have who have committed these crimes,” Ashcroft said.