There seems to be an effort to halt capital punishment again in
A minister told the audience at a recent non-denominational
service that included President Bill Clinton, "When the state
supports execution, it invites an ongoing cycle of violence." The
minister called for forgiveness for Timothy McVeigh, who is
sentenced to die for blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma City
in 1995, killing 168 people, including 19 children.
Actor Ed Asner appealed to Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to
commute the sentence of Alan J. Bannister, convicted of murdering a
Joplin man to get $4,000 in a contract killing. Recent motion
pictures, such as "Dead Man Walking," have depicted the struggle
waged by those opposed to the death sentence.
Polls indicate, however, that Americans favor capital
punishment by almost 3 to 1. This hasn't always been the case. In
the 1960s, polls showed less than half of Americans surveyed
supported the death penalty. And, in 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court
in the controversial Furman vs. Georgia case banned capital
punishment by a slim 5-4 vote.
This decision appeared to reflect more personal conscience than
constitutional interpretation. Two of the majority, Justices
William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, noted that they found all
capital punishment to be cruel and unusual.
While appearing to have overstepped its jurisdiction, the court
set up guidelines for challenges to the Furman decision. As a
result, costly legislative action was begun in states seeking to
reinstate the death penalty.
More than 600 condemned American prisoners were given a new
lease on life. I knew some of them who had been on death row at
Menard Penitentiary. I was employed there for many years, including
a stint as counselor for the condemned prisoners. All the men
awaiting execution in 1972 received new sentences because of the
Supreme Court's moratorium. I saw most of them released from prison
in the 1980s, and I saw some of them come back to prison for new
The moratorium ended on Jan. 17, 1977, as a firing squad
executed Gary Mark Gilmore in Utah. About six months earlier, in
July 1976, the Supreme Court made Gilmore's execution possible by
ruling that appeals filed by Texas, Georgia and Florida met their
guidelines for a constitutional death penalty.
Since then, a number of capital punishment cases heard by the
Supreme Court seem to reflect a more conservative position. In
1989, for instance, a number of such decisions were made, including
decisions involving mental illness pleas and appointing attorneys
to file appeals on death row inmates' behalf. …