More in U.S. Expressing Doubts About Death Penalty

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 2, 2005; 4:06 AM

AUSTIN, Dec. 1 -- Ruben Cantu is long gone, executed by Texas authorities in 1993 after he was convicted of murdering a man during a San Antonio robbery when he was 17 years old. To the end, Cantu insisted he had been framed, and now his co-defendant and the sole surviving witness both say he was telling the truth.

A state legislator called for an investigation this week as prosecutors moved to study the 20-year-old case. Opponents of the death penalty suspect that Cantu may be what they have long expected to find: an innocent person put to death. Houston law professor David Dow said the case shows that "we make mistakes in death penalty cases, too."

The nation's 1,000th execution since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976 took place Friday morning at 2:15. The execution of Kenneth Boyd in North Carolina for murdering his wife and her father comes at a time of growing misgivings over the death penalty, as reflected in jury verdicts, opinion polls and the actions of courts and state legislatures.

Death sentences have declined to their lowest level in three decades, with juries sentencing 125 people to death last year, compared with an average of 290 per year in the 1990s. The number of inmates executed last year was the lowest since 1996, and the Supreme Court has twice in the past three years limited who can be punished with death.

In Virginia, which has executed more people since 1976 than any state but Texas, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) commuted the death sentence of Robin M. Lovitt this week because the state had thrown out what may have been conclusive evidence, making this the first year since 1983 that Virginia will not have had an execution.

In Maryland, Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, prayed with Wesley E. Baker this week and said he would appeal to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to commute his death sentence to life without parole. Baker is on death row for murdering teacher's aide Jane Tyson during a robbery outside a Catonsville mall.

Public opinion polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the death penalty, but that is a significant drop from the peak, in 1994, when 80 percent of respondents told Gallup pollsters they were in favor of capital punishment. When asked if they would endorse executions if the alternative sentence of life without parole were available, support fell to 50 percent.

Amid the refinement of DNA techniques and the sporadic release of inmates from death row because of uncertain guilt, a growing number of people tell pollsters they believe that innocent prisoners have been executed. Although the majority of cases over the past three decades have been upheld, legal errors and sometimes poor defense work revealed during layers of appeals have convinced many Americans that the system is imperfect.

"There's a skepticism about the accuracy of the system and, to some degree, the fairness," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. "It's not quite the ticket to the statehouse if you promise to execute more and more and speed it up. You have religious leaders voicing concerns. You have conservatives. The lines aren't as clear as they were before."

One place to observe the recent push and pull is Illinois, where outgoing Gov. George Ryan (R) commuted the sentences of the state's 167 death row inmates in 2003, calling the state's death penalty "arbitrary and capricious."

A 2000 moratorium on executions continues in Illinois, but 10 more defendants have been sentenced to die since Ryan acted. At the same time, the state legislature has reformed death penalty rules, provided more money for defense lawyers and required police to videotape the questioning of homicide suspects.

"The playing field has been leveled. We think that's fine," said Paul A. Logli, a prosecutor in Rockford, Ill., who said he thinks Ryan's clemency move was a mistake. "In one broad brush, he swept death row, even of those people who had never asserted their innocence. I believe the better choice is that governors should do it on a case-by-case basis."

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