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Bar Assoc. Calls For Executions Halt

The American Bar Association, which has supported a moratorium on executions since 1997, will now call on its 400,000 member lawyers to work for a suspension of the death penalty at the state and federal level until it can be shown to be imposed fairly, the group's incoming president said Monday.

Martha Barnett said she was a "reluctant supporter" of the death penalty but no defendant should be executed until there was a guarantee he or she had received adequate legal representation and the sentence was not a result of racial discrimination.

Barnett, a Tallahassee, Fla. lawyer, will become the second woman president of the world's largest voluntary professional organization on Tuesday. The ABA has more than 400,000 lawyers and judges in its ranks.

"I am putting together a call to action on the implementation of a moratorium on the death penalty," she told a news conference, adding that she would organize a national conference on the death penalty in Atlanta in October.

"What we want to do is ask the lawyers of America to get involved in trying to work with their state and local governments in encouraging a moratorium in those various jurisdictions," she said.

Barnett said the aim of the conference would be to get lawyers, court and government officials to create committees to review the fairness of administration of the death penalty.

The committees would examine due process protections, racial bias and execution of the mentally retarded or people who were juveniles at the time their crimes were committed.

Among the key issues was how to ensure that defendants got competent and properly funded legal defense to fight the death sentence.

"I think I'm a competent lawyer, for example, but I'm not competent counsel in a death case," Barnett said.

She said steps were needed to ensure that a defendant's conviction and sentence were not a result of racial discrimination or profiling and that all evidence that might show the defendant's innocence had been considered.

Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. George Ryan became the first governor to declare a moratorium on executions, citing concerns about 13 innocent persons who had been sent to death row in that state.

Just last week, the Clinton administration decided to delay the first federal execution in nearly four decades while the Justice Department comes up with new rules for death row inmates seeking presidential clemency.

Vice President Al Gore said Friday he backed the decision, but did not support a nation-wide death penalty moratorium.

Although the ABA does not have a policy on the death penalty in general, it does oppose executions of defendants who were mentally retarded or juveniles when the crimes were committed.

In 1997 the ABA's policy making body voted to support a moratorium on the death penalty and wrote o President Clinton in May asking for a suspension of the death penalty on the federal level.

However, Barnett said she planned to take the ABA's position further by pushing lawyers to take action in their individual states.

"These are issues that are solvable," said Barnett, a partner at Holland & Knight who specializes in public policy and governmental law.