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Death Penalty Opponents Encouraged by Recent US Supreme Court Rulings - 2002-06-28

Opponents of capital punishment in the United States are encouraged by two recent rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court blocked the execution of mentally retarded criminals and ruled that only juries, not judges, have the right to sentence people to death.

Just one year ago, Americans were given a rare and sobering glimpse into the world of state-sanctioned death.

Audio tapes of executions carried out in Georgia in the 1980s were made public, including the last words of a condemned prisoner. "I love the Lord and I hope that you all love him too and may God take me into his Kingdom, and goodbye mother," he said.

Another tape included the words of a prison official as the execution was being carried out. "The perspiration has been wiped again from the condemned's forehead and the hood is being placed on at this time. The execution is now in progress. He made one jerk when the voltage initially entered his body," he said.

The audio tapes, along with the execution last June of Timothy McVeigh, the man convicted of setting off a powerful truck bomb in Oklahoma City, have stirred up renewed debate about the death penalty, much as the two recent Supreme Court decisions have done.

Opponents of capital punishment have welcomed the high court's decision to ban executions of mentally retarded killers and prevent judges from issuing death sentences.

But anti-death penalty activists are far less optimistic about any further victories from the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

"It's important to note that this court is not going to abolish the death penalty," said David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "If we are to abolish the death penalty in the United States, it is going to be the result of a grass-roots effort. It is going to be done state by state, [state] legislature by legislature. We are not going to get rid of the death penalty through the courts."

Death penalty supporters were dismayed by the Supreme Court ruling on mentally retarded offenders. The high court said it violated the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

"You find that these people were perfectly culpable individuals whose mental retardation is highly in question and so much so, that the juries found these people guilty and sentenced them to death knowing that they had mental issues which were presented to the jury, but the jury still found them fully culpable," said Dudley Sharp who is with a Houston-based victims' rights group called Justice for All.

Mr. Sharp says opinion polls indicate that public support for the death penalty is up from last year, possibly due to the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"Horrendous crimes like that do cause spikes of support for the death penalty," he said. "But those spikes dip after some period of time and my belief is that the foundation for the death penalty is what it always has been, and that is that under certain circumstances, it is considered just. And possibly that is the reason that we have seen nearly a 10 percent rise [in polls] in support for the death penalty. It might be attributable to 9-11."

But death penalty opponents sense a subtle shift among the public. David Elliot of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty believes there is a growing sense the current system of capital punishment is not administered fairly and is vulnerable to abuse.

"It is certainly true that a majority of Americans, as you have noted, favor the death penalty," he said. "But when you start asking Americans if they are concerned about the fact that innocent people are sometimes mistakenly sent to death row, or if they are concerned about the fact that people sometimes have very poor lawyers or if they are concerned about the fact that there is racial bias in the death penalty, then the public starts to respond and starts to express a certain moral ambivalence about capital punishment."

Anti-death penalty activists say the next battle they may try to fight before the Supreme Court might be an attempt to ban the executions of people who committed crimes between the ages of 16 and 18. The high court banned the execution of criminals younger than 16 in 1988.