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NOT YET 1000
A non-execution puts the spotlight on capital punishment

Virginia governor Mark Warner postponed on Tuesday the nation’s 1000th execution since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, by commuting the sentence of Robin Lovitt to life in prison for the robbing and murder of Clayton Dicks in 1998. Lovitt was due for execution on Wednesday at 9 pm; the dubious honor of number 1000 now shifts to Kenneth Boyd, due for execution in North Carolina on Friday, December 2, at 2 am.

Warner’s move was celebrated, interestingly, by both supporters and opponents of the death penalty. Conservatives had come to Lovitt’s aid behind none other than former Clinton-hounding special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who represented Lovitt on appeal. Starr supports the death penalty, but argued that this was a clear case of injustice: among other things, a county administrator accidentally destroyed the physical evidence in Lovitt’s case, making it impossible to do DNA testing.

Make no mistake, Starr and other conservatives are all for killing people in the name of justice. But — like Mitt Romney pushing a mistake-proof death-penalty bill — the right has learned that preventing wrongful or questionable executions is critical to justifying capital punishment, says David Elliot, spokesperson for the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty in Washington, DC. "Allowing this execution to go forward would have eroded the public’s confidence in the Virginia death penalty," Elliot says.

The coincidental convergence of the 1000th execution, a case of potential innocence, support from conservatives, and a governor with presidential aspirations brought unusual public interest to Lovitt’s case. Vigils were planned nationwide, including at least three in Massachusetts.

The impending execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, scheduled for December 13, has also drawn national attention. Williams, co-founder of the Crips gang, became a cause célèbre after renouncing gang life in the early 1990s. A who’s who of Hollywood lefties — including Jamie Foxx, who played Williams in the 2004 biopic Redemption — has petitioned Hollywood rightie Arnold Schwarzenegger for clemency. The governor will hold a hearing on December 8.

In all of this renewed attention to the death penalty, perhaps the most important event was the release in mid November of a statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). While the conference has been on record against capital punishment for a quarter-century, this 11-page document calls for renewed effort and focus — framing it as a "Culture of Life" issue.

This was welcome news from many Catholics who wondered why this issue has taken a back seat to abortion and euthanasia. More important, it’s already having an effect on the public debate, says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC. Conservative Catholics like senators Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas have made public statements saying they are reconsidering their positions on the issue. "And remember," says Dieter, "there may be a majority of Catholics on the Supreme Court soon."

Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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