ACLU Says McVeigh Error Highlights Larger Problems; Says Errors Widespread in Capital Punishment Trials

May 11, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today said that the FBI’s failure to turn over thousands of potentially crucial documents to defense attorneys for Timothy McVeigh highlights systemic problems with the administration of the death penalty in the United States.

“Too often the intentional or unintentional withholding of evidence by law enforcement officials unfairly decides the outcome of capital cases,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project.

Rust-Tierney said that the FBI’s mistake confirms a recent study by Columbia University of 5,000 death penalty cases in which more than two-thirds of the cases had serious errors that resulted in the trial decisions being overturned. Many of those errors involved the government’s failure to give defense attorneys access to crucial evidence as required by the Constitution.

The ACLU has long been a proponent of a federal level moratorium on the death penalty that would allow an investigation into both the procedural flaws, such as this, and the serious regional, racial, and ethnic disparities that exist in the current capital punishment system.

“The federal government spent over $50 million dollars on this case, $10 million of which went to Mr. McVeigh’s defense, and still thousands of documents were not turned over to the defense team,” said Rust-Tierney.

“Given the investment in time and resources for this trial as well as its high level of public scrutiny, it’s scary to think that such an error can still take place,” she added. “One can only imagine the mistakes that are made in other cases, the vast majority of which do not receive the same resources or public attention.”

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