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ACLU Highlights Flaws in American Capital Punishment

Christopher Hill,
Capital Punishment Project
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October 1, 2009

In his continuing effort to bring to light human rights issues in the United States before an international stage, Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU Human Rights Program, made a statement about the capital punishment system at the Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation of Europe (OSCE) in Warsaw, Poland. Jamil discussed the human rights violations that plague the death penalty system in the United States and highlighted several issues including the danger of executing the innocent, noting:

We have long been afraid that an innocent person has been executed in the United States. Those fears have become reality. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the arson-murder of his three children. Independent investigations by a newspaper and a nonprofit organization using top experts in the field of fire science found that arson was not the cause of the fire. The State of Texas hired a fire expert to investigate. But even the state’s distinguished expert found that the fire was not intentionally set. All of this leads to one conclusion. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.

The risk of executing more innocent people was evident in the fact that five men were released from death row in four different states in 2009. This number is staggering when you consider the amount of time these men spent in prison for crimes they did not commit, and that there were people allowed to actually get away with murder because others were incarcerated and sentenced to death for their crimes. The death penalty does not make people living in the U.S. any safer; in fact, it only increased the suffering of the wrongfully convicted and the victims’ families.

In addition to the problems of the state killing innocent people, Jamil also discussed other problems with capital punishment such as judicial misconduct in Texas. Philip Alston, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, noted in a report released last May that Texas’s death penalty is problematic for several reasons, including the system of judicial elections.

Jamil also highlighted the horrendous problems associated with the main method of carrying out executions in the United States, lethal injection. He mentioned the recent botched execution of a man in Ohio. The attempt to execute Rommel Broom took two hours and the governor finally had to issue a reprieve.

The ACLU was not the only organization calling for abolition. The European Union also made a statement urging the states attending the conference to abolish the death penalty (PDF). In its presentation, the European Union called on the only countries in the OSCE area that execute people, namely the U.S. and Belarus, to impose a moratorium on capitol punishment. The conclusion that must be drawn is that capital punishment in the U.S. needs to be abolished.

Learn more about the ACLU’s work on capital punishment at: /capital/index.html

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