Death Penalty

ABA Calls for National Execution Moratorium

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After a three-year study on state capital punishment systems, the American Bar Association is calling for a nationwide moratorium on executions until an unfair and sometimes inaccurate application of the death penalty is corrected.

“The death penalty system is rife with irregularity—supporting the need for a moratorium until states can insure fairness and accuracy,” says Stephen Hanlon, who chairs the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, in a written statement. He also characterizes the system as “deeply flawed” in the press release.

“In determining who gets the death penalty,” Hanlon tells ABC News, “all too frequently, it seems to be not the person who has committed the worst crime, but the person who has the worst lawyer.”

Specific problems identified by the ABA study include, according to the release: “significant racial disparities” in how the death penalty is imposed; serious incidents of mistake or fraud in often-underfunded crime laboratories, as well as, frequently, a failure to use the most sophisticated testing procedures; a lack of needed policies, in many states, to insure that defendants who are mentally ill or mentally retarded are properly defended; and, throughout the system, a lack of specific standards to be used by those investigating, prosecuting, defending, deciding and reviewing death penalty cases.

The study also found that most states don’t require biological evidence to be preserved until the defendant is released or executed, permitting the destruction of evidence that could potentially be used to prove a defendant’s innocence, as scientific testing methods improve.

The ABA doesn’t take a position on whether the death penalty itself should be abolished, but has since 1997 urged a moratorium on enforcing capital punishment in each state that permits execution until that state conducts, as the release puts it, “a thorough and exhaustive study to determine whether its system meets legal standards for fairness and due process.”

The ABA study focused on eight sample states—Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. More information about the study is provided on the project Web site.

One critic of the study is Joshua Marquis, district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore. He told the Chicago Tribune there is no doubt the system can be improved, but the problems cited in the report “suggest epidemics when they aren’t.”

“I think the ABA should drop its pretense of being neutral on the death penalty,” he told the Tribune. “They are being disingenuous by simply declaring that they want a moratorium. The powers that be in the ABA want the death penalty abolished.”

Recently, some states have hesitated to apply the death penalty. That is because they are waiting for a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of Kentucky’s lethal injection, as an earlier post discusses.

An Associated Press story (“Death Penalty Systems Questioned”) says the ABA has not studied the lethal injection question.

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