- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

In his decision to halt Thursday evening's execution of a convicted killer for a period of 30 days, Texas Gov. George W. Bush did what had to be done. Where there is no shadow of a doubt, the death penalty can sometimes be the right course of action. Yet, where doubt, any doubt, remains, the consequences are awesome. In the case of Ricky Nolan McGinn, who was sentenced to death for raping and murdering his 13-year-old stepdaughter in 1993, there seems to be some uncertainty, in which case every means should be used to establish the truth. When you take a man's life, you take everything he's got. There simply is no way to make up for a mistake made in the execution chamber.

Mr. Bush cannot be accused of being soft on criminals. During his five and a half years in office, Mr. Bush has presided over more executions than any other governor in the country: 131, all told. Most famously, Mr. Bush refused to reduce the sentence of Karla Faye Tucker in 1998. She had been convicted of the particularly horrible execution-style murder of two persons during a gas station robbery, and while in prison had become a born-again Christian. Though religious leaders such as Pat Robertson pleaded for her life, Mr. Bush allowed the execution to go forward. The fact that he has chosen to grant a 30-day reprieve in this one case can hardly be said to indicate a change of heart on the death penalty.

Nevertheless, in the partisan heat of a presidential election year, Mr. Bush has been accused of playing politics with the death penalty. If this is the case, he is doing so on the side of giving someone on death row a final chance. This contrasts with Gov. Bill Clinton's decision to proceed with the execution of a severely retarded Arkansas man during the 1992 presidential election campaign, which was meant to establish his tough-on-crime credentials.

But beyond the question of politics, there's science. Mr. Bush is catching a nationwide movement, based on advances that are making DNA testing increasingly sophisticated. The increased use of DNA analysis has in fact revealed serious flaws in the way the justice system exacts the supreme penalty. The trend towards state moratoria on executions has been led by Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a Republican. In Illinois, during the course of the 23 years since the death penalty was reinstated, a dozen persons have been put to death but 13 have been cleared of capital murder charges through DNA testing after having been sentenced to death. This is a stunning and sobering fact. Unless Illinois is vastly different from the rest of the United States, that statistic ought to produce second thoughts for everyone. (One of those second thoughts might be that for every innocent man executed, a guilty man is still out there, unpunished.)

We do not suggest here that the United States should stop punishing the guilty to the fullest extent of the law, even if that means death. However, if this country is to have the death penalty, we must be as certain as is humanly possible that executions are restricted to the guilty. States should be encouraged to make sure that is the case. Even if 66 percent of Americans support the death penalty, it is no argument to say (as some conservatives have done) that the death of an innocent person here or there is not enough to reconsider what we are doing. This argument has been put forward by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Some have even argued that this may be the price of the death penalty's deterrent effect; Rep. Bill McCollum, Florida Republican, suggested as much in an article for the Atlantic Monthly last year.

Perhaps the most cogent argument against the death penalty is that it degrades the sensibilities of otherwise good and reasonable men and women, who have come to believe in it so obsessively that they would impose it on the innocent if that is the only way to keep the death penalty in the law.

During a moratorium, the state would keep its electricity and gas bills paid and its stockpiles of potassium chloride intact against the day when the moratorium ends and executions resume presumably following improvements in the way convictions are produced. Surely no one could reasonably object to making sure we execute only the guilty.

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