At National Death Penalty Conference, ACLU Urges "Unified Strategy" to End Capital Punishment

November 17, 2000 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Statement of Nadine Strossen, President
American Civil Liberties Union


SAN FRANCISCO, CA–I am pleased to be here today with so many others from around the country who are committed to the cause of civil and human rights.

This is an incredible time for us to be gathering together. Not so long ago, it seemed that public attitudes and positions on the death penalty were so entrenched that a meaningful debate about the death penalty could not take place. Today that debate is more vigorous and well informed.

Support for the death penalty is at a 19-year low. Recent polls have found that death penalty support dropped to 64 percent this year, down from 75 percent in 1997 and 71 percent in 1999.

This shift in public opinion is due to increasing concerns about the fairness of the practice. Forty-two percent of the public believes that the death penalty is not applied fairly, over 60 percent favor suspension of the death penalty until questions about its fairness can be studied, and 80 percent of the public believes that an innocent person has been executed.

Legislation abolishing the death penalty recently passed the New Hampshire Legislature. Although that state’s Governor vetoed the measure, that historic vote is a sign of the times. Abolition bills have been introduced in 15 jurisdictions including on the federal level.

Concerns about fairness and the risk of executing the innocent led Governor George Ryan of Illinois to impose a moratorium on executions in that state. The federal government and at least six other states are conducting reviews of their own systems. Moratorium legislation of some kind is pending in at least 14 states and federal legislation seeking a moratorium or other reforms have been proposed in the United States Congress.

Yet, the reality of the death penalty has not abated. There have been 675 executions to date. Another is scheduled for today in Texas of John Penry who has an IQ of 56 and believes in Santa Claus.

The stakes are high. The moral integrity of the nation continues to be on the line as each execution under our current system tests our shared commitment to due process and equality under the law.

Because we believe that so many of the problems of unfairness and violations of due process are inherent in the administration of the death penalty, the American Civil Liberties Union opposes capital punishment. This conference is a pivotal moment in our struggle to end the death penalty. It will provide an opportunity to take stock of the current debate, the shifts in public opinion, and proposals for reform.

This conference also provides an opportunity to continue to find and to build on common ground with death penalty supporters, who while not categorically opposed to the death penalty, share our concerns about fundamental fairness.

For our part, the ACLU is stepping up its efforts to inform the debate about the death penalty by shining the light on the flaws in the system. Working with and through our affiliates around the country we will focus public attention on specific problems such as the double standard of justice for rich and poor, incompetent lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct and bias, and arbitrary rules that thwart efforts to obtain a fair hearing in death penalty cases.

We will continue our efforts to call attention to racial profiling in the criminal justice system which in its most egregious form determines who is sentenced to death and who receives another punishment.

We have endorsed and encouraged calls for a moratorium and will continue to do so until the many problems surrounding the death penalty have been addressed. And we expect to engage fully in the debate about specific reforms.

We recognize that moving a majority of the public to abolish the death penalty will take time. But each execution amid so many questions of simple fairness creates a crisis that demands immediate response.

Today we rededicate ourselves to ending the death penalty in the long run while we work to find a remedy for the untenable violations of due process and equal justice today.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release