Tough-on-crime GOP governors raise capital punishment questions

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Capital punishment is under renewed national scrutiny, and the curious thing is that it is not Democratic governors in cutting-edge states like California who are out front.

Instead, it is mostly Republican governors in some of the most active death-penalty states raising questions about the system.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan ordered a moratorium on executions in January while the state's death penalty procedures are examined for fairness.

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore approved new DNA tests June 1 in hopes of establishing conclusively whether a former death row inmate raped and murdered a woman 18 years ago.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush granted a reprieve earlier this month to allow for DNA tests on a convicted murderer - the first time in his career he'd blocked an execution.

The Republican governors' moves come amid signs that public support for the death penalty is slipping. Sixty-six percent of Americans in a recent Gallup poll backed capital punishment in murder cases, the lowest it's been in that survey for almost two decades.

A poll this year by the Public Policy Institute of California found voters in this state evenly split on whether the worst killers should receive the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Yet Democratic Gov. Gray Davis isn't budging from a declaration during his 1998 campaign that ''I have always unapologetically supported the death penalty.''

Since taking office last year, Davis has allowed three executions to take place, including that of a fellow Vietnam War veteran who was mentally ill.

In March, Davis said the judges he appoints should follow his lead on the death penalty and other issues, or resign.

While his Democratic predecessors were adamant opponents of capital punishment, Davis made clear last month that even a direct appeal from Cardinal Roger M. Mahony will not prompt him to reconsider.

Mahony asked Davis, who is Roman Catholic, to place a moratorium on executions in California and study how the death penalty is carried out.

Davis, who presides over the state with the nation's longest death row, declined.

''The governor has great respect for Cardinal Mahony and his leadership in the church. He's also a longtime believer in separation of church and state,'' said Phil Trounstine, Davis's communications director.

Trounstine said Davis believes the criminal justice system here is fair. Davis was not available for comment, he said.

Other Democratic governors have taken a similarly tough stand in defense of the death penalty.

The Legislature in New Hampshire approved a bill to abolish the death penalty, but Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it last month.

On the other hand, Maryland Gov. Gov. Parris Glendening, a Democrat, halted an execution this month by commuting convicted murderer Eugene Colvin-El's sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Glendening said the evidence wasn't strong enough to warrant execution. Yet Glendening agreed to a study on whether racial or any other bias exists on Maryland's death row.

Most Democratic governors are skittish about questioning death penalty convictions because doing so can make them appear soft on crime, said Bruce Cain, director of the University of California, Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

''It's a little like Nixon getting out of Vietnam,'' Cain said, referring to the Republican presidential candidate who pledged to pull out of the war in 1968.

''Only the Republicans are going to be able to do this,'' he said. ''If they raise these doubts about individual rights being violated, they can get away with it because their party image is, they've been the law-and-order party.''

Others say the Republican are merely responding to a new political reality forced upon them by increasingly powerful DNA testing technology.

''It puts politicians who support the death penalty in a box: They'd better not be responsible for executing someone when we have the technology even after the execution to show that they're innocent,'' said Lance Lindsey, executive director of the anti-capital punishment group Death Penalty Focus.


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