- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

Most advocates in the death-penalty policy war shun shades of gray. Executions are all wrong, or every one is "good riddance."
Enter Virginia Sloan's star-studded crew at the Constitution Project, where true believers who want to abolish capital punishment sit beside former judges and prosecutors who sent such bad guys as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to their eternal reward.
Unlike Justice Harry A. Blackmun's 1994 opinion resigning from debate on the extreme penalty, these activists do "tinker with the machinery of death."
When the project's "odd bedfellows" gather at its 1717 Pennsylvania Ave. NW office, all talk of abolishing capital punishment is forbidden, Miss Sloan said. Instead, members promote 18 changes they say will improve administration of death sentences.
"As you well know, abolition isn't going anywhere, and we wanted to achieve reforms. As long as we took abolition off the table, everything else was on it," Miss Sloan said in an interview during a week when her organization celebrated its latest Supreme Court success and welcomed its 10th law-enforcement veteran.
On Monday, justices agreed to decide whether Delma Banks was properly defended 23 years ago when he was an 18-year-old, convicted in a Texas court of murdering Richard Whitehead, 16, a fellow restaurant worker, while robbing his Ford Mustang.
Among project members preparing a brief in that case were former FBI Director William Sessions and former federal appeals court Chief Judge John Gibbons. The court postponed Banks' execution while it considers his appeal.
Despite intercession in the Banks case, Mr. Sessions said in an interview he remains a firm advocate of the death penalty. He said he told Miss Sloan the FBI began the forensic use of DNA during his regime so he would assist on the issue of DNA identification, while 13 years as a federal judge qualified him to advise the project on competent counsel.
"I believe in the death penalty," Mr. Sessions said. "There are some crimes so heinous that a person might expect they should have to forfeit their life. Ginny Sloan did not insist we do anything but remain intellectually honest and act appropriate to the case."
The new law-enforcement veteran is retired FBI Special Agent B. Frank Stokes, who headed the Richmond Field Office before he joined the panel of three dozen persons that is co-chaired by former judges from Texas and Florida top courts, and by Beth A. Wilkinson, a federal prosecutor on the Oklahoma City bombing.
Other members include former Virginia Attorney General William G. Broaddus, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, former International Association of Chiefs of Police President Charles Gruber, lawyer-author Scott Turow, retired Rep. Vin Weber, and Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead.
One who dismisses as "a fraud" the project's claim of bipartisanship on the issue is Dudley Sharp of Justice for All, a Texas organization that supports the death penalty.
"Some people on the project might be for the death penalty, but those I know I have no reason to believe they are for it," Mr. Sharp said, suggesting the opposite is true. "It's a fairly common thing for people to say 'I'm for the death penalty' and then do everything they can to change it."
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, sees no conflict for execution opponents to work on processes that may facilitate them.
"The polarized debate those holding candles at executions and those shouting for quicker executions wasn't moving anything forward. It was a stalemate. Nobody was convinced by either approach," he said. "For right now we do have the death penalty, and no one wants to see the wrong people executed."
One of the project's 18 points was achieved on June 20, 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that moderately retarded criminals convicted of capital murder may not be executed. Other key points include not executing murderers under age 18, and changing "felony murder" laws to exclude accomplices who did not participate in a killing or intend to kill.
Other recommendations would train lawyers for capital cases, provide better pay to lawyers and investigators, allow all juries to sentence killers to life without parole, use DNA when applicable and further open prosecution files.
"The system is so appallingly bad that in many cases there is no way we can accurately identify who's guilty and who's not. I'm still against the death sentence although, frankly, I think life without possibility of parole is worse," said Miss Sloan, project executive director, who predicts the system's high cost will be its downfall.
She characterized Columbia, S.C., criminal defense lawyer David Bruck as the project's most extreme opponent of capital punishment, a description accepted by Mr. Bruck who defended 20 capital trials and some 70 capital appeals including seven at the Supreme Court.
"Some opponents do make the argument that it's inconsistent with the idea that it be abolished to participate at all in trying to make it work better, but if this death-selection system can be administered less arbitrarily, and with fewer errors, so much the better," he said, insisting members strike a collegial tone.
Mr. Sharp suggested the project is aligned with the calls for a moratorium as a step toward abolishing the death penalty.
"That's the basic game plan of abolitionists," he said.

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