Barely two years ago, death penalty opponents were a lonely group. Public opinion hovered around 80 percent in favor of capital punishment, very few media noticed when an execution occurred, and if many more than 100 came to an annual meeting of a national coalition it was a good year.
Then came the first "wrongful conviction conference" in November 1998, hosted in Chicago by law professor Lawrence Marshall.
Now the Gallup Poll shows public support for capital punishment at a 19-year low, newspapers, radio and television regularly report on death penalty issues, and nearly 1,000 persons gathered in San Francisco from Nov. 16-19 for what was billed as the country's largest anti-death penalty conference ever.
With growing evidence of persons serving on death rows across the country who were wrongly convicted, Americans began to take another look at the death penalty. Whereas state killing of convicted criminals apparently hadn't bothered a majority of people, it seems that the possibility of executing innocent persons does violate a basic American sense of fairness.
Since 1973, 89 persons have been released from death rows because of new evidence of their innocence.
An NBC poll last month showed that 63 percent of Americans would agree to halt executions.
This number is a 26 percent increase in just two months. Part of the reason is that 94 percent of Americans believe that innocent persons are serving time on death row.
Moratorium in Illinois
In January of this year, when the number of persons exonerated in Illinois because of wrongful convictions (13) exceeded the number executed in the same period of time (12), Republican Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois until he could be certain—"with moral certainty"—that the individual is guilty.
In the last two years, more than 35 communities have passed resolutions supporting a moratorium on the death penalty. In a visit to Missouri last year, Pope John Paul II voiced opposition to the death penalty. And last month the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reaffirmed its opposition to capital punishment, urging parishes and dioceses to work for a moratorium.
Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, called last month's meeting a "historic and landmark conference."
One reason was the number of participants (917). Another was the number of sponsors. Besides the NCADP, sponsors included the American Friends Service Committee, the Community of Sant'Egido and Death Penalty Focus. Another seven organizations participated, including the ACLU and Amnesty International, and another 25 organizations endorsed it, including the UCC. "It's exciting that so many anti-death penalty groups are joining their resources and energy," said the Rev. Sala Nolan, the UCC's Minister of Criminal Justice and Human Rights.
But the reason that generated the most excitement was the possibility of achieving a moratorium on the death-penalty in the United States, something abolitionists only dreamed of two years ago.
"This is one issue where we do have the power to make a difference," Lawrence Marshall of the Center for Wrongful Convictions told the opening night plenary. "We have a window of opportunity. It's not too far now. Just one or two more turns in the tunnel and the light is going to be there."
The convention opened with speeches from four former death row inmates, men wrongfully convicted and later exonerated. They gave accounts of drunken or otherwise inept attorneys, false testimony and police misconduct.
"If only one person can be proven innocent, then how many others on a national level could also be innocent?" asked William Nieves, released just four weeks earlier after six years on death row.
The convention ended with an awards banquet, including an award to Gov. George Ryan of Illinois. A self-described "law and order, conservative Republican," Ryan described his odyssey from being an ardent pro-death penalty supporter to the point where he issued his moratorium on executions last January.
"You know the basic difference between right and wrong," he said, "and what we were doing in Illinois was absolutely wrong—and we had to end it."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.