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.
"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.