Alabama's largest newspaper advocates abolishing
By JAY REEVES
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - With surveys showing about three-quarters of Alabama residents in support of the death penalty and almost 200 inmates on death row, the state's largest newspaper has come out in favor of a radical change: Ending capital punishment.
Citing numerous problems with a system it says is broken, The Birmingham News last week began six days of editorials arguing Alabama should do away with the death penalty.
Even if all the flaws disappeared, the paper said, executions should be halted in the name of promoting a "culture of life" that includes opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and euthanasia.
"We believe all life is sacred. And in embracing a culture of life, we cannot make distinctions between those we deem 'innocents' and those flawed humans who populate Death Row," said the newspaper, which reversed decades of support of capital punishment.
The editorials angered death penalty supporters, yet they heartened opponents of capital punishment who have long criticized Alabama's execution machinery as being error-prone and unfair to minorities and those without financial means to adequately defend themselves.
"It would not be surprising to see some changes initiated as a result of this prominent paper's strong new position," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
Esther Brown, who works with an anti-death penalty group run by inmates on Alabama's death row, said condemned prisoners were "delighted" with the newspaper's conversion, even though any change is likely years away.
"I think that with something that is so dear to Alabama - state killing - it's going to take some time," said Brown of Lanett, a volunteer with Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty.
In its editorial series, the News said capital punishment should be scrapped in Alabama for a myriad of reasons. Among them, the paper cited inadequate legal representation for poor defendants, racial disparities in sentencing, and sentencing inconsistencies that make capital punishment seem almost random.
But more important, the News argued, is the need to promote life on a consistent basis. It adopted a typically liberal position - abolishing capital punishment - on the same grounds used by conservatives who oppose abortion.
"Life has value: the life of a microscopic smattering of cells, the life of an aging person beset by Alzheimer's, even the life of someone who has killed another," said the newspaper.
Even the mention of abolishing capital punishment angered victim advocate Miriam Shehane, who waited about 13 1/2 years for the execution of the man who was convicted of murdering her daughter in 1976.
Shehane, who founded the Montgomery-based Victims of Crime and Leniency, said the News is a "very liberal" paper that cares more about protecting murderers than comforting victims of even the most heinous crimes.
Some people may be wrongly convicted, she said, but it's "just about impossible" to execute anyone who is truly innocent because appeals are automatic and often last for decades. And guilty people are wrongly freed all the time, she said.
"Isn't that just as unfair?" Shehane said.
Despite such criticism, the newspaper hasn't received much negative response to its change of heart, according to editorial page editor Bob Blalock.
"So far the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive," he said.
Citing many of the same factors highlighted by the newspaper, state Senator Hank Sanders, D-Selma, has tried for several years to get lawmakers to impose a moratorium on the death penalty in Alabama.
A committee approved his bill the last two years, but the measure died each time in the Senate. Still, the fact that the bill made it out of committee was viewed as another sign that support for the state's current execution system may be wavering.
A statewide poll released in July found that 71 percent of Alabamians strongly supported the death penalty, yet even more - 80 percent - believed the system could lead to the execution of an innocent person.
Despite the overall support of capital punishment, only 47 percent of those in the survey thought capital punishment was applied fairly in Alabama. And 57 percent supported suspending the death penalty until questions about its fairness were studied.
While the numbers indicate some ambivalence about the death penalty, those kind of feelings have yet to result in change. Governor Bob Riley and all three of the major candidates trying to unseat him in next year's gubernatorial election support capital punishment.
Change may be slow, the paper acknowledged, but executing the innocent is a real risk in Alabama. It pointed out that five people have been freed from the state's death row in recent years.
Bryan Stevenson, a Montgomery attorney who represents condemned inmates in Alabama, said the idea of a Deep South newspaper advocating an end to capital punishment had shocked many people.
"What's intriguing and impressive about what The Birmingham News has done is that Alabama is definitely a death belt state where there is little organized opposition to the death penalty," he said.
Barring a complete end to capital punishment, the News advocated reforms including a revamped indigent defense system; rules to ensure that prosecutors apply death penalty laws consistently; and new evidence rules to guard against wrongful convictions.
What happens next is uncertain, but newspaper editorials seldom seem to lead to major change in Montgomery.
Under Alabama law, juries that convict someone of capital murder then recommend a sentence of either death or life imprisonment without parole. Judges, however, have the final say and are not bound by the recommendation.
The last major change in Alabama's death penalty law was in 2002, when lawmakers changed the method of execution from the electric chair to lethal injection, which supporters saw as more humane.