This complex issue has both religious and political dimensions. The Democrats traditionally were opposed to capital punishment, and the Republicans traditionally favored it. There was a shift in the common wisdom, however, in 1992. The Democrats, having not possessed the White House for 12 years, decided that their best chance for victory was to make an obvious tilt toward the center. The issue chosen on which to make this shift obvious was capital punishment. Then-Gov. Bill Clinton broke off his presidential campaign to preside over the Arkansas execution of a convicted murderer. His message was: This is no longer the party of George McGovern.
So with little difference between the parties on this issue, it faded.
That was the situation as Campaign 2000 began. Vice President Al Gore, following President Clinton's lead, announced his support of capital punishment. Gov. George W. Bush had made his support of capital punishment a major plank in his two successful campaigns for the governorship of Texas. Capital punishment appeared thus to be a non-issue.
But one never knows what a campaign will bring forth during an election, or in what form even old issues will be framed, particularly when legions of people search the public records for a way to cast their opponent in a negative light.
So it was that Democrats, looking at the number of public executions carried out in Texas--a figure significantly higher than any other state--began to suggest that it's one thing to be in favor of capital punishment but quite another to be gung ho for mass killings. Early in 1998, a woman named Karla Faye Tucker, who had committed two horrific murders in Houston in 1983 and subsequently been sentenced to die, was scheduled for execution in Texas. But in the ensuing 15 years, Tucker had blossomed in prison into a pretty born-again Christian who eventually married a prison chaplain. The leaders of the religious right, seduced by her born-again designation, appealed to Governor Bush to commute her sentence. He declined. She was put to death.
A slight chink in the alliance between the religious right and the Republican candidate appeared, but it was too early in the campaign to make it seem critical. So it was simply filed away.
The thing that made that particular execution linger in the public memory was that this person broke the stereotype people have in their minds of those who populate death row. This was no Willie Horton, the issue George Bush had in 1988 ridden so successfully in his White House campaign against Michael Dukakis. This death-row inmate was white, not black. She was female, not male. She was a born-again Christian.
But she died, and the world settled back to try to forget that her death was troubling. The issue, however, would not go away.
In January, as the campaign was heating up in New Hampshire, this issue reappeared. First, George Ryan, a conservative Republican governor in Illinois, despite his publicly stated support of the death penalty, ordered a moratorium on all executions until a statewide investigation of all capital cases could be completed. He was responding to DNA studies revealing that 13 people in the state had been unjustly sentenced to death since 1977.
Next, stories began to circulate in the media questioning the adequacy of court-appointed lawyers in capital cases--particularly in Texas. Some of these attorneys, it was said, even had to be awakened when the time came for them to cross-examine a witness. Transcripts of trials were studied by experienced criminal lawyers documenting the absence of a competent legal defense in many cases that resulted in the sentence of capital punishment.
Surprisingly, conservative voices joined the debate on the liberal side. Republican columnist George Will admitted to a certain skepticism in capital cases. Evangelist Pat Robertson, having been unable to save Karla Faye Tucker, supported the idea of a moratorium. Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon co-sponsored a bill with Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont to guarantee competent lawyers and DNA testing to death-row inmates.
Culturally, the emphasis in the debate had shifted from retribution and deterrence to the human concerns that justice was being compromised. Studies documented that racism and poverty are underlying factors in public executions. People of color are executed in proportions far greater than their percentage in the population at large, and execution is hardly ever carried out against a person of means.
Slowly, a compelling argument developed in conservative circles for a moratorium and the rethinking of capital punishment. As the issue grew, Mr. Gore found himself positively positioned as a moderate conservative, while Mr. Bush's image began to be that of one a bit too eager to execute and a bit too uncaring to see the bigger picture. The issue had clearly been nuanced.
I have personally always opposed capital punishment--not successfully, I might add--but consistently. New Jersey reinstated the death penalty in the 1980s, an act I opposed publicly. It was signed into law by then-Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican who happens to be an Episcopalian and whom I admire enormously. My opposition was based on the very reasons that are now being discussed: the presence of race and poverty as factors in determining who lives and who dies and the chance of a mistake being made.
There are other reasons that add to my opposition, such as the economic and psychological interdependence of human life, which make it difficult to assign blame in the way we once did. When abused children become abusive adults, it is not easy to assess blame. When economic realities grind those not equipped to compete into a hopeless poverty that finally turns to drugs and crime, is the blame appropriately applied to the individual? I believe that all life is deeply interdependent.
I am also not impressed by, nor do I see any evidence for supporting, the suggestion that capital punishment is a deterrent to murder. Indeed, the evidence seems to point in exactly the opposite direction. As grotesque and morbid as public executions are, they nonetheless possess a certain glamour. As the countdown toward the day of execution begins, there is enormous attention paid to the convicted person in the public media, strangely securing that elusive human goal of fame. Those who have been damaged and denigrated by life might well experience a perverse attraction to such a final flame-out, sufficiently to choose it even if only on some subconscious level. This would suggest that, far from inhibiting crime, the presence of capital punishment could actually encourage it.
There is no attraction that I am aware of to a mandatory life sentence behind bars--a sentence that would, I suggest, offer a better incentive for living within the law and is thus a greater deterrent to crime.
In this year's campaign, I suspect that capital punishment will not be specifically debated--but it will be used to feed other issues by drawing a line between a candidate who appears to be insensitive on this issue and who might thus be portrayed as insensitive on other issues like poverty and health care. That will be the tactic of the Gore campaign. The Bush campaign will counter with the charge that Gore really isn't firm on the death penalty--and a candidate who is soft on this issue might also be soft on crime in general or perhaps weak in standing up to our foreign enemies.
The issue can be played both ways. Two things, however, will determine its effectiveness: first, which side will make its particular spin work, and second, the realization that Bush's traditional Republican campaign has now been placed on the defensive by moderating influences that have arisen from the conservative side of the political spectrum. We will watch with fascination.