Matter of life or death

Argument against capital punishment is heating up in lieu of DNA testing

Published: Saturday, Sept. 17 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Jessica Berry, Deseret Morning News

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Gary Gauger had gotten up late the morning his parents were killed. It wasn't until the next morning, going into the garage to get a motorcycle part for a family friend who had come by, that he discovered his father lying on the floor, his throat slit. Later than morning, after he called 911, his mother was found slain too.

Police in McHenry County, Ill. arrested Gauger. A judge later gave him a death sentence — for murders it turns out were committed by members of a local motorcycle gang.

Gauger's case is one more cautionary tale, say opponents of the death penalty. As for Gauger himself, released from prison in 1996 after serving 3 1/2 years, wrongful convictions like his are only one reason to abolish capital punishment.

"It's a barbaric practice," he says about killing people who have killed people. "It reduces us to the killer's level. We're nothing but a gang looking for retribution."

Gauger will be in Utah next week to speak at a death penalty symposium at Utah Valley State College. The event, which runs Monday and Tuesday, Sept. 19 and 20, will explore shifting public opinion about the death penalty, and to detail reforms that could reduce the number of wrongful convictions.

Nationally, support for the death penalty has fallen in the past decade — from 80 percent in 1994 to 74 percent in 2005, according to Gallup polls. Other polls have put the number even lower, in the two-thirds range.

In Utah, where the firing squad execution of Gary Gilmore in 1977 marked the national reinstatement of the death penalty, we're more likely to want an eye-for-an-eye: A 2003 Deseret Morning News-KSL poll found that 78 percent of Utahns favor the death penalty.

But nationally, when poll respondents are given a choice — the death penalty or life in prison without parole (an alternative now available in all 32 states that permit executions) — support for the death penalty drops considerably: to 39 percent according to a 2005 CBS poll; 56 percent according to Gallup.

Although the numbers indicate a public in flux, it's clear that many Americans still can't imagine life without the death penalty despite the fact that every major religion but two has taken a stand against putting killers to death, says Michael Radelet, chair of the department of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"It's not just the likely subjects, like the Quakers," says Radelet, who will also participate in the UVSC symposium. "It's the Presbyterians and Lutherans and Methodists and American Baptists." At the time of Gary Gilmore's execution nearly three decades ago, "there were really no major religions opposed to the death penalty," he says. As even more proof of the change, Radelet says, he was in a debate with evangelical preacher Pat Robertson a few years ago and "much to my surprise, he came out calling for a moratorium on the death penalty."

Only the Southern Baptists and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Radelet says, have not come out publicly against capital punishment. The Southern Baptists are silent on the issue, he says. The LDS Church in 2003 issued a statement that it "regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment."

Among Catholics, according to a Zogby poll, only 48 percent now support the death penalty — and the number drops for regular churchgoers, compared to those who attend church infrequently. The poll was released last March, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops announced a new campaign to end the use of the death penalty.

Wrongful convictions, often proved by DNA analysis, are one reason why public opposition to capital punishment is growing, even among conservatives, says Radelet.

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