Back to News & Commentary

U.N. Special Rapporteur Finds Major Problems with U.S. Death Penalty Systems

Christopher Hill,
Capital Punishment Project
Share This Page
July 1, 2008

After a two-week visit to the United States, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, expressed deep concern (PDF) about the way the country carries out capital punishment. During his visit, Alston met with officials in Austin, Texas; Montgomery, Ala.; New York and D.C., including ACLU national and state affiliate staff.

Noting his concerns about the poor quality of legal representation received by capital defendants in Alabama and Texas, Alston recommended that the two states establish well-funded, statewide public defender systems. He also stated that the states should establish another method of choosing a judiciary other than elections.

In addition to these recommendations, Alston pointed out that federal court review of constitutional claims—claims based on rights outlined inthe Constitution—in death sentences has been sharply curtailed by federal legislation erecting procedural barriers to full review. Alston recommends that Congress pass new legislation that would eliminate these barriers.

Alston recognized that innocent people have been sent to death row and some have been executed. He strongly disapproved of the lack of urgency showed by Alabama and Texas officials to reform the criminal justice system.

The Special Rapporteur also criticized the U.S. government for thelack of fair trials for those incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay. Alston stated that any death sentence that arises from the unfair trials of “alien enemy combatants” would violate international law.

Many of these issues were highlighted in a report by the ACLU’s Human Rights Project and Capital Punishment Project to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.