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Suppose they held an execution, and nobody came? Within the cinderblock walls of the death chamber at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, suppose they strapped a man to a gurney. Suppose that with a series of shots, they pricked the holes through which he slid from the world of the living into the world of the dead. All while most Georgians watched “Entertainment Tonight,” or microwaved a Lean Cuisine or braked for a traffic light on the way to Mass. There’s very little “suppose” about it. The state revived its execution system last year after a three-year, unofficial moratorium during which the Georgia Supreme Court declared the electric chair unconstitutional. Georgia now has 121 inmates on death row. Executions were stayed for two recently: Wallace M. Fugate III, convicted of killing his ex-wife; and Stephen Anthony Mobley, sentenced to die for killing a Domino’s Pizza manager during a robbery. Fugate was executed Friday night following the lifting of his stay. Since October, six men have been put to death by lethal injection. And hardly anybody came. The number of protesters at the execution grounds has ranged from a high of 35 to a low of 14. The dearth of protesters is exceeded only by the lack of supporters. There’s been just one. Of course, death penalty proponents already have what they want. The fact that opponents don’t — and for the most part haven’t trekked to the prison in Jackson to complain about it — is noteworthy. And it’s one of the factors encouraging some death penalty opponents to recast their strategy for defeating a system that they find repugnant. A SHIFT IN PROTESTING This recasting in part means veering away from grassroots protest to legislative and court-based action. But on a philosophical scale, it means a shift away from morality-based arguments about the death penalty per se and toward arguments designed to raise doubts about the fairness of the process — even in the minds of people who support the death penalty. Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., is quick to say that morality remains the movement’s undergirding. “It’s not to be discarded,” he said. “But in terms of change, bringing that middle ground of people into this debate, those people are not so moved that you’re holding a candle for some serial killer.” Georgian ennui seemed particularly evident when Tracy Lee Housel was executed on March 12, after protests from diplomats of five European countries, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair, failed to save him. While 20 foreign journalists attended his execution, only five U.S. media representatives came, and just 19 protesters showed up. At the execution of David Loomis Cargill in 1998, no television trucks equipped for live reporting were there, and only eight protesters and six supporters came. “Lord have mercy,” the Rev. Murphy Davis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “It’s a sad place to be when we deliberately kill people and not even notice.” Prior to October, the Georgia Department of Corrections’ records of numbers of protesters and supporters outside the Jackson facility are spotty, so it’s impossible to track trends. All the numbers show for sure is that on a few occasions before the most recent set of poorly attended executions, 50 people or more on both sides of the issue came to make their views known. Multicounty Public Defender B. Michael Mears, who has defended capital cases since 1983, said he’s sure that fewer people are protesting now than 10 or 15 years ago. In any long battle, he added, “It takes a certain amount of energy or commitment to stay the course. And while a great many people have and will continue to be ardently opposed to the death penalty, the ability to sustain long-term, at least visible, commitments is difficult.” DEMONSTRATIONS CHANGE The protesters of a decade ago have moved on to other stages of life; the younger generation is more focused on cars and careers, according to Mears. Of course people still demonstrate. There have been huge, well-publicized pro-choice and pro-life rallies. There have been heated demonstrations against the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. Just last week, 7,000 showed up at Graceland to mourn the 25th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. But it’s easy enough to imagine someone you know facing an unplanned pregnancy, or to see the effects of globalized commerce; it’s easier still to link arms and sing “Love Me Tender.” Activism isn’t dead; it’s just not all that interested in the death penalty. Mears said he doesn’t want to be too hard on Gen-X, but added, “I think a lot of the generations have been combined into the ‘Me Generation.’ People are into things that affect them directly, and the death penalty is not perceived by that large group — and that’s a very harsh thing to say — as something that affects them directly.” Ed Weir of New Hope House in Lamar County, Ga., a nonprofit organization that assists the families of death row inmates, said he has noticed some renewed energy in public protests over the last year. About 20 people showed up at a protest in Marietta, he recalled. Other small protests have been held in Augusta, Savannah and other cities. In Macon, thanks to the efforts of a college student, the city council passed a resolution calling for a moratorium, though it’s not binding, on the district attorney. For those who still care, Mears said the battleground has shifted from the yards outside execution grounds to other venues, namely, the courts and the Legislature. And, he said, “I don’t believe either of those two institutions is going to be moved by protest.” DEATH PENALTY SUPPORT GROWS What’s more, after years of more or less steady decline in public support for the death penalty, data from recent Gallup polls show the scale may be tipping in the other direction. A Gallup poll in May 2001 logged 65 percent support for the death penalty, the lowest since 1978. But a poll taken by the organization a month after the Sept. 11 tragedies showed 68 percent support; in another, taken this May, support rose to 72 percent. “There’s been a change in the polls,” said Dieter, speaking of the years of declining support for the death penalty. “But I don’t think it’s a moral revolution. It’s skepticism.” The skepticism, he said, has to do with whether the death penalty is applied fairly. That’s exactly the angle that Laura E. Moye, a field organizer with the Southern Regional Office of Amnesty International USA, is taking. Rather than arguing that the death penalty should be abolished, she’s calling for a moratorium on executions in Georgia so that the fairness of the process can be examined. In early April, Moye held a press conference at the Capitol to announce that state Rep. Nan Grogan Orrock, D-Atlanta, planned to introduce moratorium legislation, pending a state-commissioned study of problems with the death penalty’s application. About 20 supporters showed up. By contrast, hundreds of motorcyclists from as far away as St. Simons Island blocked traffic in front of the Gold Dome earlier this year to advocate, among other things, a “pro-choice” helmet law. Moye carefully arranged her supporters — one wearing a T-shirt that read “Jesus was a Victim of the Death Penalty” — so that their boxes of 13,000 signed postcards collected over two years from moratorium supporters would show to advantage for the three or four journalists present. Among those who spoke was Mary Ruth Weir, who runs New Hope House with her husband, Ed. The Weirs and a friend spent more than a month sitting outside the Capitol this spring with a sign saying that the death penalty has killed 99 innocent people nationwide since 1973. “Every day, a man with a pick-up truck would stop and yell, ‘How do you know they’re innocent?’” Mary Ruth Weir said. But every day, the light changed and he drove on before she could answer. To get people to stop and listen, Amnesty’s new tack is compromise. “While Amnesty as a human rights organization opposes all executions,” Moye said, “we are seeking common ground.” Moye tried to establish common ground by finding a conservative — which Orrock isn’t — to back her moratorium plan. She couldn’t find one, because people were reluctant to commit in an election year, she said. But compromise still is necessary, she said. Without it, “People won’t pay us any attention, because they think we don’t care about the victims.” The compromise she seeks between those who want convicted killers to die and those who want them kept alive involves questions of fairness and economic and racial profiling. Moye cites a poll taken by the Schapiro Research Group in Atlanta in January. When asked, “Thinking about the death penalty, would you support or oppose a temporary halt on executions?” only 34 percent of respondents said they’d support a moratorium. Yet when asked if they’d support a temporary halt if they knew that most death row inmates couldn’t afford a private attorney, 54 percent said yes; another 65 percent said they’d support a moratorium if they knew that since 1973, nearly 100 people on death row had been found innocent. Moye said the shift in focus from a moral argument demanding an end to executions, to a compromise position calling for a moratorium to examine fairness issues, isn’t a defeat. With DNA evidence finding more innocents on death row, former first lady Rosalynn Carter calling for a moratorium during the American Bar Association’s annual meeting last week, and conservatives such as Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan supporting moratoriums, Moye sees the compromise as gaining ground. “When you ask me, ‘Do you think this is an acknowledgement that we’re failing,’” she said, “We think this is an acknowledgement that there’s hope.”

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