ACLU Endorses House Legislation To Protect the Innocent on Death Row

March 30, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded the introduction of a bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives to address the national problem of innocent people being sentenced to death.

“This bill demonstrates that there is growing understanding among both political parties that many people on death row are innocent, and that an inadequate defense is a reason they were sentenced to death in the first place,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “The only thing that often stands between Americans and death row is an inexperienced, incompetent – or even a sleeping – lawyer.

“The Innocence Protection Act would help fix this injustice by helping states provide competent legal services at every stage of a death penalty prosecution,” Rust-Tierney added. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) authored the legislation, which was introduced last month in the Senate.

The House bill, sponsored by Representatives Ray LaHood (R-IL) and William Delahunt (D-MA), comes at a time of unprecedented attention on the problem of sentencing and executing the innocent. Legislatures in 16 of the 38 states with death penalty laws have considered or now are considering a ban on executions while they study the fairness of capital punishment.

At a news conference announcing the introduction of the bill today, Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican supporter of the death penalty, said he instituted a moratorium on executions after the number of people proved innocent and released from death row exceeded the number the state executed.

The ACLU said that there are two common traits among those who have been released from Illinois’ death row: they have either had access to crucial DNA evidence that exonerated them or volunteers were able to augment shoddy defenses with investigative work that turned up evidence of their innocence.

But not all death row inmates are allowed to use DNA evidence to prove their innocence. Virginia recently executed a man after refusing to test DNA evidence that could have proven his guilt or innocence. The ACLU said that the “Innocence Protection Act” would ensure that death row inmates have access to DNA testing, and that the courts would hear an appeal based on new DNA evidence.

“We must not send another person to the grave without allowing a simple test that could once and for all resolve any questions of whether they committed a crime,” Rust-Tierney said.

“Although the ACLU believes that the death penalty is wrong under any circumstances, we strongly agree with death penalty supporters who think that innocent prisoners must have the chance to exonerate themselves,” Rust-Tierney said. “Reps. Delahunt and LaHood’s bill will help guarantee that opportunity.”

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