WASHINGTON — Representatives of more than 30 church-based groups are joining in a plea to President Clinton to impose a moratorium on use of the death penalty by the federal government.
Meanwhile, the New Hampshire House voted to abolish the death penalty, and Illinois Gov. George Ryan established a commission to review his state's use of capital punishment, which he suspended in January.
In a March 9 letter, religious leaders told President Clinton that “our nation is slowly realizing the truth of capital punishment: the death penalty, as applied in America today, threatens to shed innocent blood.”
“There are too many death penalty cases where questions remain — or even arise — after the execution has occurred,” the letter said. “And there are too many death penalty cases where the understandable desire for punishment overshadows the impartial pursuit of justice.”
It was signed by leaders of Baptist, Quaker, Episcopal, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Methodist organizations, among others. Columban Father Michael Dodd, director of the Justice and Peace Office of the Columban Fathers was among the signers.
At a Capitol Hill press conference, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., noted that the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, had written a similar letter to Clinton a month earlier.
Although the U.S. bishops were not among the signers of the March 9 letter, Bishop Ramirez said they join with the other religious leaders in their call to end the death penalty, with a moratorium on execution of federal prisoners as a first step.
“We oppose capital punishment primarily because of what it does to us as a society,” Bishop Ramirez said. “It perpetuates a terrible cycle of violence and the notion that we can settle our most intractable problems by resorting to violence.”
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., whose office hosted the press conference, said he hopes President Clinton can be persuaded to call a moratorium. Clinton has asked the attorney general to review how the death penalty is applied under federal law.
The first federal execution since 1963 could be scheduled at any time. Convicted murderer Juan Raul Garza has exhausted his appeals and is awaiting an execution date. He was convicted under a federal drug kingpin statute.
Feingold said that if Clinton does-n't call for a moratorium, he's prepared to introduce legislation to force it. Feingold already has introduced a bill that would end use of the death penalty for any federal crimes.
The call for a federal death penalty moratorium has gained strength since Ryan announced in January that he was suspending all Illinois executions pending a review of how the state applies the law. On March 10 Ryan announced the formation of a 14-member panel to study the system.
The panel will be headed by former federal judge Frank McGarr, director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, and former U.S. Attorney Thomas Sullivan. Also on the panel will be retired U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., and lawyer-novelist Scott Turow.
New Hampshire's 191-163 House vote March 9 would repeal the state's death penalty law. New Hampshire's last execution was in 1939 and there is nobody on the state's death row.
Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vowed to veto the bill if the state Senate should approve it. She has previously been unsuccessful in attempts to increase the number of crimes for which the death penalty is an option.
Opponents of the bill argued that New Hampshire does not have the problem of wrongful convictions for capital crimes that prompted Ryan to impose a moratorium in Illinois. They also argued that the penalty is useful in persuading suspects to accept a plea agreement for life imprisonment rather than risk execution.
Supporters of the New Hampshire bill noted that the Catholic Church's strong opposition to the death penalty had been helpful in persuading some former capital punishment supporters in the Legislature to change their opinions.