ACLU Opposes Constitutionally Flawed Death Penalty Legislation, Proposed Changes Would Violate Eighth Amendment’s Protections

March 30, 2006 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union signaled its opposition today to the Death Penalty Reform Act of 2006 (DPRA), which is being considered in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security. This bill would violate the Eighth Amendment by allowing for the execution of persons with mental retardation, and by making virtually every crime resulting in death and involving a firearm eligible for the death penalty.

"We urge lawmakers to oppose this dangerous legislation because it violates several fundamental constitutional principles," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. "Study after study, including one released by the Department of Justice in 2000, has documented racial, ethic, and economic disparity in the application of the death penalty. This legislation does nothing to address the problem, but may actually worsen it by allowing capital punishment to be applied to people with mental retardation."

The definition of "mental retardation" outlined in the Death Penalty Reform Act is without any basis in medical science and goes against the generally accepted definition of mental retardation established by physicians and other mental-health experts. In addition, the DPRA allows jurors, rather than medical professionals, to determine whether a person is mentally retarded. The majority of state legislatures considering that question have adopted an approach that resolves the issue before the start of the trial.

The ACLU noted that if a person is not deemed to be mentally retarded before the start of the trial, it will be very difficult for jurors to separate themselves from the evidence and make an objective determination about a defendant’s mental state.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 123 innocent people have been released from death row since 1973. The increasing numbers of innocent people released from death row illustrate the fallibility of this system. In 2004, a University of Michigan study identified 199 murder exonerations since 1989, 73 of them in capital cases. The same study found that death row inmates represent a quarter of 1% of the prison population but 22% of the exonerated.

"Some safeguards are in place to protect people from unfairly receiving the death penalty, but these statistics indicate that we still have a long way to go," said Jesselyn McCurdy, Legislative Counsel to the ACLU. "It would be a mistake to expand the application of the death penalty rather than invest resources in ensuring its fair and just application. While we understand the need for true reform to the federal death penalty system, we cannot support this legislation in its current form, as it places too many innocent people at risk."

To read the ACLU’s letter on HR 5040, please go to:


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