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Alabama Senate supports executions

For the third time in five years, an Alabama Senate committee voted in favor of a three-year moratorium on executions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted six to one last Wednesday for the bill proposed by Senator Hank Sanders, D-Selma. The proposed hiatus in executions has come as a response to statistics regarding the state's possibly racist sentencing.

According to Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, more blacks have been executed than whites since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and the black population on Alabama's death row is approximately 49 percent compared to a total black population of about 26 percent.

"Historically, capital punishment in the U.S. has been disproportionately applied to economically and socially disadvantaged persons, which is why it tends to politicize as a racial issue," said Kalynne Pudner, a professor of ethics. "Its background supports the Alabama legislature's proposed study; given the historical likelihood that it has indeed been applied discriminatorily, a moratorium is a reasonable way to halt the injustice."

During the proposed three-year hiatus, the state would make sure the death penalty is being administered impartially and fairly across the state.

Sanders' bill now heads to the Senate, where comparable legislation failed in 2005 and 2006. Sanders also sponsored moratorium legislation in 2007 and 2008, but those bills died in the Judiciary Committee.

Sanders and several other groups opposing the death penalty assembled on the steps of the Statehouse in January to push the legislation, which they have been working to pass since 2001.

The death penalty, however, is a controversial issue nationwide and has become a growing concern in Alabama.

For instance, an Alabama provision allows a judge to impose a death sentence when a jury recommends a life sentence in prison without parole.

Thomas Manig, professor of philosophy, said as long as the death penalty exists, it should be administered fairly and impartially. He said the guilty should be punished and the innocent should not.

"The main problem has to do with the treatment of the guilty," Manig said. "Murderers who have committed the same kinds of crimes are not treated alike; some are sent to be executed, and some are given lighter sentences."

Manig also said studies have proven that race and other morally irrelevant factors have been determinants in death penalty sentences. He said the purpose of the moratorium should be to prepare effective laws that serve as a watchdog and regulate the behavior of the authorities.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was the single vote against Sanders' bill in the Judiciary Committee. Orr said the death sentence results in automatic appeal and therefore any unfair sentences can be reviewed in both state and federal courts.

Pudner said capital punishment seems to serve no purpose but as a method of retribution, but is in favor of a moratorium to re-evaluate the Alabama's system.

Pudner also acknowledged that she thinks there is a difference between the justice of capital punishment and the justice of capital punishment as applied under America's legal system.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman v. Georgia that the death penalty was unusual punishment under the Constitution because it was so uneven in its administration. It also ruled the death penalty cannot be applied to people who were younger than 18 when they committed their crimes.

In addition to approving Sanders' moratorium bill, the committee also voted 5-3 for a companion bill that would bring Alabama's death penalty law in line with a U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding minors. Both bills are headed to the Senate.

"The moratorium should end only when the public can be confident that there will not be significant arbitrariness in the administration of the death penalty." Manig said.

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Other states have also questioned the administration of the death penalty.

In January 2000, Governor George Ryan of Illinois instituted the nation's first moratorium on state executions. The moratorium called for a thorough review of the capital judicial process.

In April 2002, an Illinois commission recommended more than 80 changes to the state's system. The proposed reforms prompted many states to reexamine how capital punishment is being carried out throughout the country.

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