The Politics of Punishment
J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- Virginia
Gov. Mark Warner's decision this week to grant clemency in a death
penalty case will be seen in the coming years as a landmark in
the nation's debate over capital punishment.
In sparing the life
of Robin M. Lovitt, a convicted murderer, Warner was responding
not simply to facts that weighed heavily in favor of stopping
the execution. He was also operating in a changed political climate.
Even supporters of the death penalty now have doubts about how
it is administered. Leading conservative Christians are struggling
with their consciences over how to square their opposition to
abortion with support for death sentences.
Warner, who is considering
running for president in 2008, will win courage points from liberals
who play a large role in the Democratic primaries. But it takes
nothing away from the decency of Warner's choice in the Lovitt
case to see it as politically shrewd rather than politically dangerous.
Shifts in public
opinion on capital punishment, developments in DNA technology
and high-profile news stories about wrongful executions have opened
room in a debate that, only a decade ago, seemed closed.
Support for the death
penalty hit 84 percent in one poll in the mid-1980s and stood
at 80 percent as recently as 1994. Then it began to decline as
crime rates dropped in the 1990s. Polling in recent years has
generally found support for capital punishment in the 66 percent
to 68 percent range.
a substantial but less intimidating majority and it leaves space
for a governor to break from a lock-step insistence that every
death sentence should be carried out. Warner was tipped toward
clemency by the fact that a court clerk, without authorization,
destroyed DNA evidence that -- in theory, at least -- could have
given Lovitt a chance to prove his innocence. Virginia, Warner
said in words that will always do him honor, ``must ensure that
every time this ultimate sanction is carried out, it is done fairly.''
And Warner was given
cover by some very important conservative voices. I never, ever
expected to write the following words, but -- gulp! -- here goes:
Three cheers for Ken Starr.
Whitewater prosecutor and Bill Clinton nemesis who represented
Lovitt in his quest for clemency made exactly the right case.
``A compassionate and decent society has to ensure that a death
penalty regime is as error-free as humanly possible and as fair
as humanly possible,'' Starr told Washington Post writer
Donna St. George last March. ``The fact that evidence would be
destroyed where additional testing could be done is extraordinary
and, frankly, outrageous.'' I can't wait for someone to attack
Warner in 2008 on this and have him refer all calls to Ken Starr.
Then there was former
Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, the Republican who lost
to Warner in the 2001 governor's race. Earley said ``it would
be morally unfair to execute Mr. Lovitt.''
Earley now serves
as president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a group inspired
by Christian evangelical and former Richard Nixon lieutenant Chuck
Colson. Earley's admirable stand is one reflection of a salutary
moral rumbling among religious conservatives about the fairness
of the death penalty.
Would that Clinton
had enjoyed so much moral guidance (and political help) when,
as governor of Arkansas, he refused to commute the death sentence
of Ricky Ray Rector. Rector, who had an IQ estimated at 70, was
executed on Jan. 24, 1992, during Clinton's Democratic primary
was, to put it gently, widely interpreted in political terms.
The day after Rector's death, ABC News' Mike Von Fremd noted the
``bashing'' that Democrat Michael Dukakis, a capital punishment
foe, had taken on the issue from George H.W. Bush in the presidential
campaign four years earlier. With a touch of understatement, Von
Fremd said: ``Political analysts say the death penalty is a winning
issue with voters, particularly in the South.''
phrase: particularly in the South. It is especially heartening
that Warner is the moderate governor of Virginia, not a flaming
liberal from a deeply blue state. His state's voters helped Warner
do the right thing by rejecting a nasty pro-death penalty campaign
against Gov.-elect Tim Kaine, who personally opposes capital punishment.
There can be illusions
here. It still takes guts for a politician to oppose the death
penalty and Warner, after all, has presided over 11 executions.
But on capital punishment, it's not 1992 anymore. One person who
clearly knows this is Mark Warner.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group