ACLU Calls on Congress to Address Broad Issues Affecting Fairness of Death Penalty

July 25, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — For the first time in the history of the modern death penalty, Congress voted today to place limitations on the use of capital punishment. Even though the effort was of questionable political motivation, the unanimous vote by the House of Representatives to ban the execution of pregnant women had the laudatory effect of showing that the death penalty comes with deeply troubling baggage.

Although the situation that Congress addressed today is remote at best — there has never been a case of a pregnant prisoner facing execution — today’s vote lays the groundwork for Congress to address the more disturbing issues raised by capital punishment.

These troubling issues abound. Just today, for example, a study reported that federal prosecutors favor whites over African Americans when agreeing to settlements of criminal cases that avoid death sentences. And a June report found that every two of three death sentences nationwide are overturned because of serious errors.

Rather than focusing on non-existing situations, we call on Congress to vote on bills that would address the inherent unfairness of the death penalty. Such legislation is pending in both the House and Senate and includes:

  • The Innocence Protection Act of 2000 (S2690/HR 4167), introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Carl Levin (D-MI), and by Reps. William Delahunt (D-MA) and Ray LaHood (R-IL). It would allow death row prisoners better access to DNA tests and to an experienced lawyer and would ensure that sentencing juries are aware of the option of life imprisonment instead of execution.
  • The National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2000 (S. 2463), introduced by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-WI) would suspend executions while a national commission reviews the administration of the death penalty.
  • The Accuracy in Judicial Administration Act of 2000 (HR 4162), sponsored by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) would establish a 7-year moratorium on state and federal executions, during which the government would be directed to find standards to provide “overwhelming confidence that innocent parties will not suffer the death penalty.”

While the ACLU opposes capital punishment as incompatible with constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment, we believe that short of abolition, Congress and the courts must ensure its fair application insofar as humanly possible. Now that Congress has demonstrated its willingness to place limitations on the scope and application of the death penalty, we urge it to go further to address broader problems in a broken system. *

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