RICHMOND, Va. - Reflecting growing fears around the country that innocent people are on death row, two Republican governors this week decided to let science sort it out.
Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore approved new DNA tests in hopes of establishing conclusively whether a former death row inmate raped and murdered a woman 18 years ago. And Texas Gov. George W. Bush blocked an execution for the first time in his career to allow DNA tests.
Gilmore and Bush said their actions should not be construed as a softening of their support for capital punishment.
But death penalty opponents saw their actions as evidence that politicians are now more willing to take a hard look at the process.
''For many years politicians thought that appearing soft on the death penalty was political suicide, and that is certainly not the case any more,'' said Brian Henninger, program coordinator for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
Illinois Gov. George Ryan, another Republican death penalty supporter, has gone even further than Gilmore and Bush, ordering a moratorium on executions while the state's death penalty procedures are examined for fairness.
He said the system is ''fraught with error,'' pointing to the release of 13 death row inmates who had been wrongly convicted. Ryan said he would not allow executions to resume ''until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty.''
No state has repealed the death penalty since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Last month, New Hampshire's Legislature passed a bill that would have done so, but Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it, saying the state has proper safeguards.
Religious broadcaster and political conservative Pat Robertson recently endorsed a short moratorium on capital punishment, which he said has been administered in a way that discriminates against minorities and poor people.
Despite his action Thursday on behalf of former death row inmate Earl Washington Jr., Gilmore opposes a moratorium on capital punishment in Virginia, which since 1976 has executed more inmates than any state except Texas. Texas has put to death 217 inmates, Virginia 76.
Gilmore said it is important to make sure that the right person is executed, and if that means new DNA testing, so be it.
''To the extent that a piece of forensic evidence - a chemical test - can produce a more reliable result, I think any governor who has responsibility over these life-and-death decisions wants the best possible information in order to make a good judgment,'' Gilmore said.
Washington was sent to death row for the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, 19. In 1994, then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, a Democrat, commuted Washington's sentence to life in prison on the basis of DNA tests that suggested Washington did not commit the crime.
But those tests did not conclusively clear him. Gilmore said improvements in DNA technology since then should provide more definitive results.
In the Texas case, Bush delayed the execution of a convicted killer whose attorneys are fighting for new DNA tests. The Republican presidential candidate who is running as a ''compassionate conservative'' had never made such a move in his five-plus years in office.
Bush campaign spokesman Scott McClellan said it would be a mistake to view the governor's actions as a softening of his position on capital punishment.
''Governor Bush supports the death penalty for individuals who commit violent, heinous crimes because he believes it saves innocent lives,'' McClellan said. ''As he indicated, if DNA evidence when considered in the context of all the evidence of the case can help determine guilt or innocence, it should be examined.''
Darlene Hutchinson, a spokeswoman for the pro-capital punishment Law Enforcement Alliance, said her organization does not approve of moratoriums but is not particularly concerned about this week's actions by Bush and Gilmore.
''We should use all the technology every time we get the chance,'' she said.
But she said governors must be judicious in ordering new DNA tests.
''They should be very careful not to drag out this process when the inmate's guilt has been determined and he's gotten a fair trial,'' she said.