The Common Good
May-June 1996

Hard Evidence

by Julie Polter | May-June 1996

Hearing the facts about the death penalty.

This spring, New York Gov. George Pataki removed Bronx district attorney Robert T. Johnson as prosecutor of an ex-convict accused of killing a police officer, because he was convinced that Johnson wouldn't seek the death penalty.

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"We cannot have different standards and different laws in different parts of the state," the governor said, arguing for consistency. "We cannot have the death penalty in New York state except for the Bronx."

Critics of capital punishment would counter that its use has been inherently inconsistent and capricious, subject to the prejudices of individuals and society, mistakes by lawyers and the judicial system, and sheer chance. The death penalty is more likely to be sought and obtained for minorities, the poor, mentally ill and disabled people, and those without adequate legal counsel.

Politicians clamor for the death penalty to prove that they are tough on crime (the New York legislature just reinstated the death penalty there last fall, a fulfillment of one of Pataki's key campaign promises). But the facts about capital punishment's fairness, effectiveness as a crime deterrent, and cost (financial and human) often don't make it to the public policy debate.

Last fall the Bruderhof Foundation (a charitable organization of the pacifist Bruderhof Christian communities) and the James E. Chaney Foundation (named for the civil rights worker slain in 1964) joined forces in an effort to start a more fully informed national discussion on the death penalty. The two organizations formed the National Commission on Capital Punishment. The commission's honorary chair is Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. Individuals and groups such as Wendell Berry, Elizabeth McAlister, Sen. Paul Simon, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Seamless Garment Network, and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation have joined as sponsors and endorsers.

The commission held public hearings on the death penalty at the City Hall in Philadelphia for three days in late March, with a range of experts and those directly affected testifying.

These witnesses included Steven W. Hawkins, director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; Jane Brady, the Attorney General of Delaware; Anne Coleman, the mother of a murder victim; Leslie Seymore of the National Black Police Association; Kirk Bloodsworth, who was freed from death row by DNA testing; and several mothers of death-row prisoners. A panel of scholars, community activists, and clergy listened to the testimony and asked follow-up questions.

Findings and testimony from the hearing will be compiled and communicated to members of Congress, the White House, and the Justice Department, and will be available to schools, universities, and other interested organizations and individuals. For more information, contact Matthew Domer, National Commission on Capital Punishment, c/o Bruderhof Foundation, Route 213, Rifton, NY 12471; (914) 658-8351.

The Declaration of Life

The Cherish Life Circle is a Brooklyn-based group of about 20 people, predominantly Catholic, who meet monthly to pray and strategize on how to form the public conscience on the death penalty. Their foundational principle is that any killing of one human being by another is morally wrong. Circle members speak out against the death penalty on talk shows and in print media. The group also facilitates seminars for parishes and other organizations that allow the participants both to learn the facts about capital punishment and to wrestle with their feelings in relation to it.

"We recognize that people are conflicted, and that this is a very difficult issue," says Camille D'Arienzo, R.S.M., a circle spokesperson.

Another tool the circle is using to counter popular support for the death penalty is the "Declaration of Life." This is a statement meant to be signed and stored with personal papers, declaring that if the person signing it becomes a homicide victim, he or she does not want the murderer executed under any circumstances, "no matter how heinous their crime or how much I may have suffered."

The declaration includes requests that the document be made admissible in any trial of any person charged with the signatory's murder, that the prosecutor and court not pursue the death penalty, and that if death is sentenced, the governor or other executive officer would take whatever action necessary to block the execution.

D'Arienzo estimates that at least 20,000 people have signed the declaration. She encourages anyone who has signed the statement to notify the Cherish Life Circle so that their name can be added to a database of signatories.

To obtain a copy of the Declaration of Life, or for more information, contact the Cherish Life Circle, Convent of Mercy, 273 Willoughby Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11205; (718) 622-5750.

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