Haider Rizvi*

NEW YORK, Nov 8 2006 (IPS) — A majority of voters across the Midwestern state of Wisconsin approved a referendum asking lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty after a 153-year hiatus.

After counting some 85 percent of the total vote, state authorities declared Wednesday that about 55 percent of the electorate were in favour of the proposal to reimpose the death penalty.

The referendum was only advisory and even its author admitted there was little chance the state will indeed bring back the noose. Though the state House of Representatives remains under control of the Republican Party after Tuesday’s mid-term election, the state Senate is now under the control of the Democrats, an overwhelming majority of whom oppose capital punishment.

“I am a realist. There is no prospect,” state Senator Al Lasee, author of the referendum, told The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin. “The Democrats took control of the Senate and Governor Doyle got re-elected.”

Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, has long opposed attempts to reinstate the death penalty. As governor, he can veto any bill that would bring back capital punishment. Lasee, then president of the state senate, won approval for placing the advisory referendum on Tuesday’s ballot when both houses of the Wisconsin legislature were controlled by conservatives.

“We are encouraged by the vote,” Sachin Chedda, campaign director for No Death Penalty for Wisconsin, a coalition of human rights and faith-based groups ,told IPS. “They (Republicans) were only able to muster 55 percent.”

Chedda said he, too, was confident there would be no attempt to change existing legislation on capital punishment in the foreseeable future.

Both the Democratic governor and the new Senate leader Jodi Robson repeatedly have made it clear that they would strongly oppose any attempt to change the existing legislation on sentences for homicide. This comes in spite of pledges by Lasee that he would continue his campaign.

“But we laid the foundation for the fact that Wisconsin citizens are interested in supporting the death penalty,” Lasee said in his interview with The Capital Times. “It will not pass this session or maybe next, but at some time the Legislature will come around to the thinking of Wisconsin residents.”

Five years after joining the Union, Wisconsin abolished capital punishment in 1853. Since then, no one has been executed there for any crime, including murder.

This year’s referendum asked voters if they supported capital punishment in first-degree intentional homicide cases backed by DNA evidence.

The Republicans argued throughout the summer that capital punishment helps reduce serious crimes, such as homicide, and that it can be an effective deterrent.

Abolitionists retorted that scientific studies do not support that claim. Moreover, faith-based groups worked actively to reject the Republican proposal on moral grounds. All life, they said, is sacred. The referendum, too, was opposed by all of Wisconsin’s major newspapers.

Among the prominent civil society groups opposing the restoration of the death penalty in Wisconsin were Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), as well as leading religious groups, including the Lutheran Church, Jewish Conference and Catholic Conference.

Abolitionists attribute the lower-than-expected win by conservatives was due to the active work to fight the referendum. Still, they felt the referendum was added to the ballot at the last minute, giving them too little time to garner opposition.

“Unfortunately, there are people out there who use (the death penalty) for political purposes,” Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of the ACLU, told IPS.

“They simply do not understand that the whole world is moving away from the death penalty,” he said.

Moreover, critics like Amhuty suggested that the question asked in the referendum was misleading because it did not give the respondents a choice to consider life without parole and its efficacy in tackling serious crimes.

Asked another way, they believe a majority of voters would have responded differently.

A farmer in western Wisconsin, who gave her name as Margaret, told IPS she voted against reinstating the death penalty because of the financial burden it places on taxpayers.

“It costs more to execute someone than to keep them in prison for life, so I see this as a taxpayer issue rather than getting into the moral side of it,” she said.

Noting that the ballot stated that the death penalty would be reserved for multiple, vicious homicides, she said she was troubled by what she described as “blurry” lines in the resolution.

“How vicious is vicious?” she wondered. “And if they’re going that far, what’s the difference between one, two or five murders? The victim’s family in a single homicide won’t feel a sense of justice.”

Those who voted in support of the death penalty, however, had other thoughts on their minds.

“We voted ‘yes’ because a friend of ours was murdered. It struck a chord with us,” said Tom Skerik, 26, as he came out of the polling station in the town of Superior with his girlfriend.

“We wanted to see justice,” he added.

His friend Leah Gustafson, 29, was killed in January by Jason Borelli, 32. Borelli was found guilty last Thursday, Nov. 2, of first-degree intentional homicide. He had pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease. He has not yet been sentenced.

Despite the Democrat’s success in regaining the upper house in the state legislature, they pledged they would continue educating voters against the senselessness of the death penalty because they believe the Republicans will not give up.

“When something like this starts, it doesn’t stop,” Ahmuty said. “So we have to ask people to do more on organising.”

(*Linda Dorow contributed reporting from Wisconsin.)


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