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Governors in hot seat for courage

January 19, 2003 1:18 am

PERHAPS IF I LOST a loved one to violent crime, I would angrily preach the virtues of the death penalty and decry the actions of governors who would dare to question it.

But while that is hardly a stance I'm likely to take, I think there are a lot of people like me, who espouse so-called "liberal" positions on most key social issues of the day, who also hesitate to take an across-the-board stand against the death penalty.

These are people who would say it's probably wrong for the government to take a life, and would want to feel certain that if it is to be done, that it is done fairly. These people, like me, would need to think twice when it comes to killers such as Richard Evonitz, who murdered Sofia Silva and Kristin and Kati Lisk, but who killed himself as police closed in to arrest him.

They might also try to put themselves in a convicted killer's shoes, and consider whether life in prison without parole is actually a harsher punishment than doing a killer the favor of death by lethal injection. At least there was some pain suffered by other forms of capital punishment.

Evonitz apparently preferred self-inflicted capital punishment to what lay ahead in prison for a child abductor, rapist, and killer.

Capital punishment will remain a cornerstone of the U.S. criminal justice system because so many Americans believe it is a deterrent to crime, even though studies suggest it isn't. Many also believe in "an eye for an eye" and appreciate state-sanctioned vengeance.

So if we're going to keep putting humans to death, it would be good not to make mistakes or be arbitrary about it. And that's why Gov. George Ryan, the outgoing Illinois Republican, and Gov. Parris Glendening, the outgoing Maryland Democrat, should be commended for putting the issue of capital punishment fairness on the table.

Ryan not only imposed a moratorium on capital punishment during his administration, he closed out his term by freeing four men on death row and commuting the sentences of 167 others to life in prison.

Though he added to the heartache suffered by the survivors of these people's victims, that was not his intent. His intent, which he accomplished with stunning success, was to put a spotlight on capital punishment to determine if it is handed out fairly, and to put on trial a system of justice that gives itself the authority to take lives.

Glendening also halted capital punishment while the study he ordered of how the state metes out the death penalty was conducted at the University of Maryland.

That study, released earlier this month, said that prosecutors in Maryland are much more likely to seek the death penalty in cases where blacks are accused of killing whites. It also found that geography plays a major role in whether a defendant faces a potential death sentence because of the subjective discretion used by state's attorneys from locality to locality.

The governors took these actions in the states where they had the authority, but with the hope that more states would follow suit in reviewing whether capital punishment is administered fairly, and whether any anachronistic prejudices lurk in the judicial systems that administer it.

Their actions also point to scores of mistaken convictions that have been documented through the emergence of reliable DNA testing.

The availability of such evidence, and the possibility that the nation's death rows hold inmates--guilty or not--who had their rights compromised by the police or the courts, suggest that we ought not be taking a step that cannot be undone with an apology and a check.

Just the other day, Glendening's Republican successor, Gov. Robert Ehrlich, reiterated that he plans to lift the state's death penalty moratorium "no matter what the [University of Maryland] study says." That's not exactly an enlightened response, but one that is probably widely shared.

It is no doubt shared in Virginia, which, because of its propensity to impose the death penalty, celebrated victory over Maryland in the unsettling sweepstakes to have first shot at trying the sniper suspects.

I find that an odd sort of thing for a state to take pride in, especially considering Virginia's sizable God fearin' Christian, pro-life population. Sometimes, it would seem, the pro-life philosophy can be arbitrarily applied as well.

The blurry columnist

In last month's column on the blurring of party lines that's taking place as Virginia's elected officials look to close a huge budget gap, I inadvertently blurred the lines beyond all reality by assigning Spotsylvania Sen. Edd Houck to the Republican Party. Well, if there was ever a Democrat whose mission has never blurred, it is, of course, Edd Houck. Sometimes, one's fingers can take on a mind of their own.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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