If you hear someone described as a "card-carrying death-penalty opponent," it could be meant more than rhetorically.
"Don't kill in my name" is the gist of a two-page declaration being signed by a growing number of death-penalty foes in the US. The so-called Declaration of Life, which is reprinted on a wallet-size card, urges prosecutors not to seek the death penalty if the declarant should become a homicide victim, "no matter how heinous their crime or how much I have suffered. The death penalty would only increase my suffering," the statement reads.
About 10,000 people have taken the pledge, including former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, actor Martin Sheen, Louisiana nun Sister Helen Prejean, and Susan Sarandon - who portrayed Sister Prejean in the movie "Dead Man Walking."
Spearheading the crusade is Sister Camille D'Arienzo, a Roman Catholic nun from the New York borough of Brooklyn, who penned the declaration after the 1994 defeat of Governor Cuomo by death-penalty advocate George Pataki.
To legal experts, the movement suggests a backlash against the rising pro-death-penalty tide in the United States.
"The political climate now favors those who are tough on crime and support the death penalty. But I think people who are not caught up in that are trying to say, 'Not in my name, not for me,' " says Stephen Bright, who teaches death-penalty law at Harvard and Yale Universities and directs the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.
Because there is no legal precedent, it is uncertain how much weight the signed and notarized statement would carry in court. While it could be admissible at trial, judges and juries would not be bound by the victim's wishes. Still, in states that permit capital punishment, prosecutors typically consider the wishes of the victim's family when deciding whether to seek the death penalty. And they similarly would be inclined to consider the wishes of the victim.
"We would certainly look at that in coming to our conclusion," says Ray Slaughter, director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council in Denver. "But it would be one of many, many things we would take note of."
District attorneys must weigh a host of factors ranging from the defendant's criminal record to the nature of the crime. And one difficulty Mr. Slaughter foresees would be in honoring the request of one individual when there may be multiple victims involved. "This doesn't take into account anything at all about the defendant - who could be a serial killer," he says.
The influence of the pledge on different prosecutors would also be apt to vary. Personal discretion is a given when a prosecutor decides how to proceed with a case, notes Sean Byrne, director of the New York State Prosecutors Training Institute in Albany.
THAT element of discretion in itself makes this a fitting debate, says Mr. Bright. "So often prosecutors say they are seeking the death penalty because the victim's family wants it. So, when a person is opposed to the death penalty, I think that having a record of it like this is a very good thing. It's not unlike someone making known their wishes about [being kept alive on] life support."
But others consider the Declaration of Life more a publicity stunt than evocative of a meaningful legal discussion. "It's a
political effort to raise awareness," says James Polley, director of government affairs at the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va. Moreover, he adds, district attorneys prosecute crimes on behalf of the state, not the victim. "It's the State versus Jones, not Smith versus Jones."
The effort is somewhat misguided in attempting to change the system "with a vote of one," Mr. Polley says. "If people don't like the laws, that's what the legislative election process is all about."
But a discussion of the death penalty is important for that democratic process, and the declaration fosters that discussion, says Sister D'Arienzo - who also serves as president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing most of the nation's nuns.