ACLU Endorses New Legislation To Protect the Innocent on Death Row

February 11, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded the introduction of legislation that would address the national problem of innocent people being sentenced to death.

“Countries that routinely provide nothing more than a sham defense for those who face execution are condemned by our government for human rights violations,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Yet today the only thing standing between many Americans and death row is an inexperienced, incompetent – or even a sleeping – lawyer.

“Senator Leahy’s ‘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.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, comes at a time of unprecedented attention on the problem of sentencing and executing the innocent. The pro-capital punishment governor of Illinois, for example, recently announced a moratorium on his state’s death penalty after the number of people released from death row after proven innocent exceeded the number the state executed. Just yesterday, the Philadelphia City Council called for a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania.

The ACLU said that there are two common traits among those who have been released from Illinois’ death row: they have either been able to access crucial DNA evidence that exonerated them or the shoddy defense they initially received was augmented by volunteers who performed thorough 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. Sen. Leahy’s “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. “Senator Leahy’s bill will help guarantee that opportunity.”

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