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Brakes on Death Row

While a majority of Americans still favor the death penalty, more and more people are having second thoughts about the way it's applied. Americans' sense of fairness is offended by reports of inadequate legal representation for death-row inmates, racial inequities, and the exoneration of some who were slated to die.

In response, a movement to put a moratorium on executions has gained support. The movement got a big initial thrust last January when Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared his state would stop carrying out death sentences because the system was "fraught with error."

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As yet, no other state has followed the Illinois lead. But a growing number of cities have (see story, page 1). Municipal calls for a moratorium on executions have no legal force, since state legislators and governors write and carry out death- penalty laws. They do, however, reflect a widening public concern.

That concern has a number of sources. Well-publicized accounts of DNA evidence being used to overturn death sentences have raised broader questions about how innocent people might have ended up on death row to begin with.

Harrowing stories of incompetent lawyers, who slept through trials or purposefully neglected to look out for their clients' interests, have surfaced - particularly, though not exclusively, in Texas, the state that leads the US in number of executions.

Critics also have pointed out the questionable accuracy of psychiatric testimony about the "future dangerousness" of criminals who face the death penalty. Such testimony can be a factor in applying the penalty.

The disproportionate use of capital punishment with black and Hispanic defendants is another worry. It figures prominently in the first federal execution in 37 years, slated for Dec. 12 .

Those favoring a moratorium have a strong case. At the least, the system needs a close reassessment. Its flaws, legal and moral, are clearer than ever.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society