October 4, 2002
In January of 2000, the Republican Governor of Illinois enacted a moratorium on executions in his state after 13 people who had been sentenced to death were released after review of their cases. In an April 15 2002 announcement, the Illinois State Commission that Governor Ryan empanelled has issued a report calling for 85 reforms for the administration of the death penalty. Among its many suggestions, the Commission--that was comprised of both opponents and advocates of the death penalty-- called for sweeping changes that include, banning the execution of people with mental retardation, reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty and improving the mechanism for appointing competent attorneys in death penalty cases.
Nationwide, events over the past year demonstrate that our system of capital punishment has fundamental flaws that must be addressed. Maryland's governor enacted a moratorium in May 2002 citing "reasonable questions" about the integrity of the system of capital punishment in the United States. A week prior to the Illinois report, the 100th innocent person sentenced to death was released. Dozens of death sentences in Oklahoma based on the false testimony of a state expert are now under federal investigation and the questionable racial practices by prosecutors are casting shadows of doubt over death sentences in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas.
To address these and other concerns, Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) have introduced the "National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2001" (S. 233 , H.R. 1038 ). This legislation would establish a National Commission on the Death Penalty to review fairness in the administration of capital punishment at both the state and federal level as well as impose a moratorium on federal executions. Clearly, given the serious concerns about fairness and accuracy in the imposition of the death penalty, there should be a moratorium and a thorough study of its use. Capital punishment is literally a matter of life or death. The time for Congress to act is now.
We Must Insure Fairness in the Death Penalty!
Documented unfairness in the federal system requires Congress to suspend federal executions.
The Department of Justice released a study last September documenting racial disparities in the application of the federal death penalty. For example, the study found that 80 percent of defendants who were charged with death-eligible offenses under federal law were African-American, Hispanic American or members of other minority groups. The report also shows that white defendants are more likely than black defendants to negotiate plea bargains saving them from the death penalty in federal cases.
The link between executions and geography is clear.
The Justice Department report shows that U.S. attorneys in only 5 of 94 Federal districts - 1 each in Virginia, Maryland, Puerto Rico and 2 in New York - submit 40 percent of all cases in which the death penalty is considered. Furthermore, U.S. attorneys from states with a high number of executions under state law, including Texas, Virginia and Missouri, frequently recommend seeking the death penalty. The fact that people are treated differently because of where they live is contrary to our ideal of equal justice under law.
Racial and geographic disparities are not the only problems in the federal system.
Ronnie Chandler, the first person convicted of a federal death crime since 1963, has a strong claim of innocence. His conviction was based on the testimony of one witness who has since recanted, and is very likely the actual killer. His case is still being considered by the courts, but, in the meantime, President Clinton commuted his death sentence to life in prison based on his strong claim of innocence.