The Common Good
March-April 2001

No Longer a Bleeding-Heart Issue

by Susannah Hunter | March-April 2001

The moratorium movement is changing the politics of death.

Who are all these people passing moratoriums on executions these days? In North Carolina alone 147 groups-including city governments, churches, schools and the state bar association-have passed moratorium resolutions. But why are we now suddenly so concerned about the executions of our nation's killers? And what is the point of a moratorium passed by a high school?

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Equal Justice USA got this round of the moratorium movement started in 1997 when the country broke its 40-year-old record for most executions in a year. Much like the grassroots organizing strategy of the '80s Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, the Moratorium Now! movement consists of small groups that pass moratoriums to put pressure on their local governments, which then put pressure on state governments, which eventually put pressure on the federal government. Members of congregations or parishes are able to speak for themselves-and their voices are actually getting attention.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan greatly changed the moratorium game last year when, as a Republican and supporter of capital punishment, he paused executions in his state because of concerns about flaws in the system. Most Americans seem to have no problem with the fact that, in their view, a lot of nasty, no-good people are put to death each year. However, it has become increasingly clear that innocent people have been killed by the flawed system as well. And even if we have a way of assuring that no innocents are executed, we cannot hide from the fact that 90 percent of all people who are tried in capital cases are so poor that they can't afford their own attorney and that the system is undeniably racist. No longer just a bleeding-heart liberal issue, capital punishment is talked about and questioned in international clothing ads and in award-winning, big budget movies. The people who are executed in the middle of the night are no longer nameless and faceless-we knew intimately about Karla Faye Tucker's conversion to Christianity before Texas put her to death. Americans can no longer feign ignorance on the subject; it's out there and it's not pleasant.

In a letter urging President Clinton to declare an executive moratorium on federal executions, American religious leaders, including Sojourners' Jim Wallis, insisted that "at no time since the death penalty was halted in 1972, have Americans, individually and collectively, expressed such grave reservations about capital punishment." Could it be that we're coming to the day when someone could be in the serious running for public office and not be in favor of the death penalty? The moratorium movement forces Americans to think twice about what we allow the state to do in our names. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that they don't want that blood on their hands.

Susannah Hunter is news/Internet intern at Sojourners.

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