Capital Punishment Is on the Rise; California on Verge of an Execution

By Scott Armstrong, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 25, 1992 | Go to article overview

Capital Punishment Is on the Rise; California on Verge of an Execution


Scott Armstrong, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


CALIFORNIA'S move toward its first execution in 25 years is reviving the emotional debate over capital punishment in America.

Barring any last-minute reprieves, Robert Alton Harris will be put to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin prison next month.

In the 16 years since the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment, 166 people have been executed in 18 states. Critics worry that the resumption of executions in a bellwether state like California will add credibility to a punishment that they consider barbaric.

California would be one of only a handful of states outside the South to use the death penalty since it was reinstated by the United States Supreme Court in 1976. The state is also significant because it has 327 inmates on death row, the second highest number after Texas.

"When California executes its first person, it is making a very important statement that capital punishment is mainstream," says John Poulos, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, who has represented death-row inmates.

"It is no longer largely confined to some Southern states known for their harsh system of justice," he says. Public opinion in favor

Supporters see the pending execution as a sign that the criminal justice system is finally catching up with the public will - that a punishment which is appropriate and which opinion polls show people heavily favor may once and for all be carried out.

"No one should rejoice in the taking of any human life," says state Attorney General Dan Lungren. "But we live in a society of laws where convicted criminals must face the consequences of their crimes."

Mr. Harris, convicted in the 1978 killings of two teenage San Diego boys, is scheduled to go to the gas chamber April 21. Although he has survived four previous execution dates, and his lawyers are trying to make it a fifth, experts see little chance of another judicial reprieve. Absent that, his lawyers will seek clemency from California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), though that is unlikely given Mr. Wilson's support of capital punishment. More than the South

The South leads in numbers of executions, with Texas (46), Florida (27), Louisiana (20), and Georgia (15) at the top. Other states are joining the list. Delaware last week executed a man for the first time in 46 years. Oklahoma put two people to death earlier this month, and the first execution in modern times in Arizona is scheduled for April 6, though delays are still being sought.

"What's happening is that after a stall through the late 1980s, the number of states with at least token executions has expanded in the last year and a half," says Franklin Zimring, a law professor and death-penalty expert at the University of California at Berkeley. …

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