STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - The death penalty has been the subject of heated public discussion in recent months, but the nation's governors - many of whom hold life- or-death power over condemned prisoners - are treating the topic as a taboo subject at their annual conference.
Meeting behind tight security amid the mountains of central Pennsylvania, the almost 40 governors at the session talked about telecommunications, education, taxation and other issues - but studiously avoided even technical discussions of capital punishment.
The death penalty, a hot topic since Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in his state earlier this year, is not on the formal agenda of the National Governors' Association conference. There are no workshops on DNA evidence, no seminars on quality of legal representation, no discussions of racial disparities in sentencing - all issues a governor might confront in deciding whether to sign a death warrant.
The absence of debate is not surprising, because the NGA typically shies away from hot-button social issues. But several governors said in interviews that the issue has not even been discussed in two closed-door, governors-only sessions. Even in private conversation, the topic is largely avoided, they say.
"There hasn't been any discussion of it at all," said Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who faced a tough decision on the scheduled execution of Eugene Colvin-el last month. In that case, Glendening commuted the sentence on June 7 to life without parole.
The decision to avoid the issue comes despite demands from activists for a debate on capital punishment. Several groups advocating its abolition sought to meet with the governors this weekend but were rebuffed. About a dozen protesters were arrested yesterday when they joined hands to block the highway leading to the Penn Stater Conference Center, an isolated facility on the fringe of the Pennsylvania State University campus, where dozens of state troopers on foot and horseback maintained a tight cordon.
The silence on the issue comes despite increased public concern about the possibility that prisoners might be executed for crimes they did not commit - in some cases because defendants were not given adequate legal representation. Ryan, who is not attending the NGA conference, imposed his moratorium after newspapers and private advocates produced evidence pointing to the innocence of several men who had been sentenced to death.
Since then, several governors - including Glendening and Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush of Texas - have been forced to face the contentious issue in cases where a condemned man maintained his innocence.
In one high-profile case, Bush declined to intercede in the execution of Gary Graham on June 22 despite assertions that his conviction was largely based on shaky evidence from a single eyewitness. Bush, who is not at the conference, said he supported the execution and pointed out that Graham's case had been reviewed by 33 state and federal judges.
Glendening, who had previously allowed two executions to proceed, said he decided to spare Colvin-el after deciding the evidence in the case met the standard of reasonable doubt for conviction but fell short of "absolute certainty."
"The finality of the decision is so real that the certainty of guilt ought to be equally real," he said yesterday.
While Glendening's decision raises questions about the level of evidence needed to justify an execution, he did not seem eager to hash them out with his peers.
"When you start talking about the death penalty, you're talking about personal moral values," Glendening said. "The association tends to stick more with policy and fiscal issues rather than moral issues."
North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer, a Republican whose state does not have capital punishment, said the death penalty "is not an issue of commonality among the states."
Down the hill from the conference center, several dozen anti- death penalty activists stood in the sun on a gravel "protest pit" holding signs and making speeches protesting capital punishment. They were blocked by a near-equal number of state troopers.
Jamie Graham, a member of the steering committee of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty, expressed disappointment that his group was not allowed to meet with the governors.
"I think the governors are trying to avoid any serious debate on the death penalty," he said.
Graham said that while he favors outright abolition, the distinction Glendening made in the Colvin-el case "is a standard that should be discussed."
"Even if they are not ready for abolition right now, there needs to be an immediate moratorium on the death penalty in this country," he said.
Some of the governors said Ryan's moratorium decision had done little to change their views.
Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican whose state has executed more inmates than any other except Texas since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, said he has seen no evidence that would justify a moratorium or overhaul of the criminal justice system in his state.
"We're confident that the justice system does its job in Virginia in the right way," Gilmore said.