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Reno's death-penalty ethic mocks consistency.

Professional zeal belies personal opposition

To the 2,676 human beings awaiting execution on America's death rows, Attorney General Janet Reno sends her regrets -- that they're still alive. In confirmation hearings, the former Dade County state attorney told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "We've sought the death penalty. We've gotten the death penalty. And to find those people still in prison without that penalty carried out after 10 and 13 and 15 years makes a mockery of the justice system."

On the issue of mockery, Reno indulges in some herself. She mocks consistency: "I am personally opposed to the death penalty," she said after being selected by President Clinton, "but I've probably asked for it as much as any prosecutor in the country ... and will advocate for it as the law of the land, in particular situations."

That double-standard ethic is most often heard on the abortion question when the personally opposed protest the killing of fetal life but with Roe v. Wade on the books have no objections otherwise.

In the hearings, Reno, the advocate of hurry-it-up justice, wasn't pressed on the personal-professional split. In Florida, she aggressively sought executions -- and that was good enough for such members of the Judiciary Committee as Strom Thurmond and Arlen Specter, the latter having recently introduced three bills that would limit capital-punishment appeals and broaden the categories for imposing a federal death penalty.

In Florida, as elsewhere, prosecutors have discretion on when to seek the death penalty in homicide cases. From Reno's statements to the committee, we are left to guess where the line is crossed between her personal abhorrence to executing people and her professional zeal for it.

Occasionally a public official rallies the courage to risk the wrath of the death lobby and say that no moral difference exists between personal and professional decisions. In December 1970, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller of Arkansas announced that the 15 condemned men in the state prison would be given life sentences instead of the death penalty.

Rockefeller's comment at the time stands as an eloquent refutation of the "personally opposed but" dodge: "What earthly mortal has the omnipotence to say who among us shall live and who shall die? I do not. Moreover, in that the law grants me authority to set aside the death penalty, I cannot and will not turn my back on lifelong Christian teachings and beliefs merely to let history run out its course on a fallible and failing theory of punitive justice. Failing to take this action while it is within my power, I could not live with myself."

Another official whose private and public conscience are the same is Scott Harshbarger, the attorney general of Massachusetts, a state that hasn't had an execution since 1947. Massachusetts Gov. William Weld has twice offered legislation to restore the death penalty. Harshbarger sees it as "a simplistic, arbitrary, misguided, ineffective and costly response, cloaked in the guise of a remedy to the brutalizing violence that angers us all."

Coming from the South, Reno, an experienced and obviously intelligent public official, is surely aware of the racism of capital punishment. It is rampant in her region, where most of the 197 executions since 1977 have occurred, and in her Florida, where 324 prisoners are on death row.

In McCleskey v. Kemp, a 1987 Supreme Court case, it was documented that murderers are 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if their victims are white than if they are black. Nationally since 1977, only one white has been executed for killing a black. In February, a National Law Journal survey of nearly 800 jurors reported that two out of three black jurors among them believed that black defendants unfairly get the death penalty more often than white defendants.

That perception, grounded in facts, wasn't altered by Janet Reno during her 15 years in Florida; nor are there signs of her changing it now as attorney general. On this issue, she is one with such predecessors as Edwin Meese and Richard Thornburgh: loud singers of the executioner's song.

Colman McCarthy is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.
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Title Annotation:Attorney General Janet Reno
Author:McCarthy, Colman
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Apr 2, 1993
Words:685
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