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UN Special Rapporteur Recommends Reforms to U.S. Death Penalty System

Anna Arceneaux,
Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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May 29, 2009

This week, UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston released an advance copy of his report on the state of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in the United States. Chief among Alston’s concerns was the capital punishment system in the United States, which, he found, creates the intolerable risk that innocent people are sentenced to death.

By invitation of the United States government, Alston spent two weeks in the country last summer. He chose to study two troublingly active death penalty states: Alabama, with the highest number of executions per capita; and Texas, with the highest number of total executions and one of the largest death row population’s in the country. His findings reflect the utter failure of these states to uphold the most basic human rights.

Alston was especially concerned with the growing number of innocent people exonerated from death row since 1973 (now at 133 – three in the short time since his visit). Confronting state officials with these troubling statistics, Alston found “a shocking lack of urgency about the need to reform glaring criminal justice system flaws.”

Alston was also alarmed by the multi-million dollar contested partisan judicial elections in these states, which threaten the independence of the judiciary. Alston observed a correlation between public support for the death penalty and a judicial willingness to impose or uphold death sentences. He found this concern particularly troublesome in Alabama, where elected judges have authority to override a jury’s verdict for life imprisonment, even when the jury’s decision is unanimous.

Alston also observed that the quality of counsel in death penalty cases was woefully inadequate, as even many government officials were willing to acknowledge. Government officials, however, turned a blind eye to the gross racial disparities in the application of the death penalty: the over-representation of minorities on death row and the increased likelihood of a death sentence when the victim is white. Alston also expressed concern with Texas’s refusal to review cases of foreign nationals who were denied the right under Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to contact their consulates for legal assistance. Given these problems in the state criminal justice systems, Alston also called for reforms to the overly burdensome procedural restrictions in federal habeas corpus which all too often foreclose review of meritorious claims, often of innocence. (Troy Davis’s case is an example.)

Alston’s findings come as no surprise to those of us who advocate against the use of the death penalty and litigate capital cases in these states. But we hope that federal and state governments will take heed of his recommendations and begin to institute these desperately-needed reforms. And if the reforms are implemented, perhaps the U.S. capital punishment system may more closely conform to international law. Or, even better, the U.S. will catch up with all of the western democracies and much of the world and abandon the death penalty.

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