Citing "Undue Risk" of Executing Innocents, Court Declares Federal Death Penalty Unconstitutional

July 1, 2002 12:00 am

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Joint Statement of Diann Rust-Tierney, Director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project and Rachel King, ACLU Legislative Counsel


NEW YORK-The American Civil Liberties Union today applauds U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff for declaring that the federal death penalty is unconstitutional because it creates “”an undue risk of executing innocent people.””

In his 28-page ruling, Judge Rakoff cited the high number of innocent people who have been released from death row, saying that “”it is fully foreseeable that in enforcing the death penalty a meaningful number of people will be executed who otherwise would eventually be able to prove their innocence.””

Given our country’s disturbing track record of sentencing innocent people to death, Judge Rakoff is right to have serious concerns about the application of the death penalty. Earlier this year, the Capital Punishment Project and a coalition of death penalty reform organizations marked an ominous milestone when Ray Krone became the 100th innocent person released from death row for a crime he did not commit. There are too many problems in too many states for anyone to be comfortable with the way the system is working.

Judge Rakoff’s ruling comes at a time when the Department of Justice under Attorney General John Ashcroft seems to be ignoring serious questions about fairness in the federal death penalty’s application and the strong evidence which suggests racial biases may be at work.

Recent reports show that since taking office last year, Attorney General Ashcroft has reversed the recommendations of his agency’s own prosecutors at least 12 times – each time ordering them to seek execution in cases where they had recommended against doing so. This aggressive pursuit to execute is unconscionable when so many questions about fairness continue to exist.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 21 of the current 27 federal death row prisoners are minorities. A U.S. Department of Justice study completed in September 2000 found that 80 percent of all federal death penalty prosecutions involved people of color. The study also found that 40 percent of all death penalty prosecutions over a five-year period came from just five of the 94 federal jurisdictions.

Now is the time to heed all of the warning signs and act. The ACLU supports the Federal Death Penalty Moratorium Act that has been introduced in the Senate by Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI). The legislation would enact a moratorium on federal executions while creating a high-level comon to study the death penalty and propose solutions.

The ACLU also urges Congress to pass the Innocence Protection Act, which has been introduced in the House and Senate and enjoys bi-partisan support. The bill would utilize DNA evidence and more competent legal counsel to seal a number of cracks in the current death penalty system.

For more information on the bill, go to /DeathPenalty/DeathPenalty.cfm?ID=9959&c=17

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