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Clinton's Pastor Preaches Against Death Penalty

Monday, February 14, 2000; Page A2

President Clinton's pastor called yesterday for a review of the death penalty, adding his voice to those concerned that innocent people have been condemned and that sentencing is prone to racial bias.

"Maybe there are circumstances in which historically one can justify this. I'm not sure there are anymore," the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, senior minister at Washington's Foundry United Methodist Church, said in a sermon attended by Clinton.

"I hope we will be in for a season of serious reexamination of that issue," said Wogaman, one of three clergymen who gave Clinton spiritual counseling after the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

Clinton supports capital punishment, as do at least 70 percent of Americans, according to opinion polls.

But debate over the death penalty has flared anew amid accusations that racial minorities or killers of whites are disproportionately targeted for execution. Several death row inmates recently have been cleared on the basis of DNA evidence, witness recantation or revelations of inadequate legal defense.

Last week, the White House said it was studying a request by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) to suspend federal executions until it could be determined that no innocent people had been sentenced to death.

In 1999, 98 prisoners were executed in the United States, a record since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976.

The capital punishment debate was given a major spur by Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R), who ordered a suspension of executions Jan. 31, citing his state's "shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row."

Illinois has released 13 prisoners who were sentenced to die. It has executed 12 since 1977.

White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, discussing Feingold's request, said last week, "The president was certainly concerned by the issues raised by the governor of Illinois."

States administer most of the capital punishment laws, although there are also provisions for the death penalty under federal law. Convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh and 20 others are awaiting execution on federal charges.

The Supreme Court in November cleared the way for the first federal execution since 1963, when it rejected an appeal by Juan Raul Garza, a convicted drug smuggler and murderer.

The Justice Department said last week it was studying whether inappropriate racial disparities existed in the federal capital punishment system.

Philadelphia joined the capital punishment debate last week, its city council urging the state of Pennsylvania to impose a two-year death penalty moratorium.

Italian clothing maker Benetton has launched an international advertising campaign featuring pictures and interviews with more than two dozen death row inmates from prisons in Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Kentucky and North Carolina.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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