The Death Penalty and Politics

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat near the end of his term, spared convicted killer Robin Lovitt from execution Tuesday. What are the political implications of commuting a death sentence?

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. This is DAY TO DAY.

In Virginia, Democratic Governor Mark Warner has granted clemency for a convicted murderer. Robin Lovitt would have been the 1,000th person executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty almost 30 years ago. Governor Warner had never granted clemency in the four years he's held office. This clemency decision is part of a wider shift in attitudes towards the death penalty. My colleague Madeleine Brand has more.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

According to a recent Gallup Poll, public support for the death penalty is the lowest it's been since 1978. Sixty-four percent are in favor, down from 80 percent just 10 years ago. What's behind that shift? Three letters: DNA. In the last several years there have been enough cases, more than a hundred, where inmates have been exonerated through DNA evidence that...

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Death Penalty Information Center): The death penalty is somewhat on the defensive. You can't unilaterally support it and say it has no problems anymore.

BRAND: Richard Dieter is head of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-capital punishment group.

Mr. DIETER: People are not necessarily morally convinced the death penalty's always wrong, but the way it's being applied has too many risks.

BRAND: And that apparently was what Governor Mark Warner concluded. In a short written statement announcing his clemency decision for Robin Lovitt, Warner said, `The commonwealth must ensure that every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly.' Warner was concerned about destroyed DNA evidence that Lovitt says could have proven his innocence. University of South Dakota Professor Elizabeth Theiss Smith studies the politics of the death penalty. She says not long ago a politician with eyes on the presidency would never have risked being dubbed soft on crime by granting clemency, but elected officials are following the public shift, albeit incrementally.

Professor ELIZABETH THEISS SMITH (University of South Dakota): Warner did not commute Lovitt's sentence entirely. He commuted it to life without parole. And there's a good deal of evidence that, you know, Americans are prepared to accept that. And right now I think because of the number of cases of actual innocence--there have been about 120 of them now, I think, where death row inmates have been removed from death row because of actual innocence--it's made people think. It's made them stop and at least consider things that they hadn't considered before.

BRAND: In Illinois, former Governor George Ryan was at the forefront of official misgivings. He declared a moratorium on the death penalty and two years ago freed four inmates on death row and commuted the sentences of 167 others to life in prison.

(Soundbite of past speech)

Governor GEORGE RYAN (Republican, Illinois): Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty and until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.

BRAND: Ryan is a Republican who says he still supports the death penalty, but he was troubled by more than just DNA evidence. He says the system was racially unjust and many defendants had inadequate counsel. Other Republican lawmakers have followed suit, says death penalty opponent Richard Dieter.

Mr. DIETER: Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, the senator, very conservative, very strong supporter of the death penalty, is now saying he's rethinking this; that there should be at least limits put on. Sam Brownback, another conservative Catholic, Kansas--he's having to rethink this. So it's changing the debate.

BRAND: And the debate has trickled down to juries. There are 60 percent fewer death sentences imposed now than 10 years ago. Juries are handing down more life sentences instead. As for the states, New Jersey has joined Illinois in imposing a moratorium, and this year New York state let its capital punishment law die. But most states still have the death penalty, and executions are still being scheduled. Number 999 took place yesterday in Ohio, and the 1,000th execution is now scheduled for Friday in North Carolina. Madeleine Brand, NPR News.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. DAY TO DAY will be right back, and so will Madeleine Brand.

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