Archive for Friday, September 15, 2000

Death penalty debate renewed

September 15, 2000


— In 1972, the United States Supreme Court ruled that all death penalty convictions based on the old federal statute were both unconstitutional and applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner. In 1988, however, the federal death penalty was reinstated under new statutes approved by the Supreme Court. States were quicker to comply, adopting laws that were upheld by the Court. In 1994, the federal government expanded the death penalty to cover more offenses, including murder of certain government officials, kidnapping resulting in death, murder for hire, fatal drive-by shootings, sexual abuse offenses that lead to death, car-jacking leading to death and the operation of a large-scale drug enterprise.

Another flaw in the 1988 law was that it did not offer a method of execution. President Bush in 1993 authorized the use of lethal injection. The 1994 law stated that the sentence could be carried out according to whatever method of execution exists in the state in which the federal sentence is handed down. If a state's laws do not permit the death penalty, the judge can choose another state to carry out the execution.

Under the current system, a defendant has only one appeal granted as a matter of right. This is an appeal of the sentence and conviction in the U.S. Court of Appeals within the circuit where the case was tried. Moreover, there is a single chance to present facts that had previously been overlooked. Any other reviews, like that of the Supreme Court, are discretionary and the defendant can only use them once. Only the president of the United States has the power to grant clemency. In 1995, U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno attempted to make the system more uniform by instituting a new system, in which federal prosecutors must submit all recommended death sentences to a team of senior Justice Department officials for approval.

A recent report requested by the attorney general and prepared by her deputy, Eric Holder, has found that 75 percent of death-sentence recommendations came in cases involving minority defendants. Of the 675 cases where U.S. attorneys recommended the death penalty, almost half involved black people. The number of white people only consisted of slightly more than one-quarter, and Hispanics approximately one-fifth. Additionally, 40 percent of the recommendations came from only five of the 94 U.S. attorney districts. They were Puerto Rico, Maryland, the eastern district of Virginia, and the southern and eastern districts of New York. Twenty-two U.S. attorney districts had never recommended the death penalty in the five years of the report.

While the federal death penalty has been back on the books since 1988, there have been no federal executions since 1969. This is due to the appeals process. Of the 21 people currently on federal death row, about one-third are minorities.

The death penalty has come under increasing public scrutiny. Last January, the Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, suspended executions in his state while a panel conducted a study on the fairness of the death penalty. Then in February, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., asked President Clinton to suspend federal executions until a thorough study could be conducted. Two months later, both Feingold and Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., D-Ill., initiated legislation for a moratorium on the death penalty. And in May, the American Bar Assn., which takes no stand for or against the death penalty, also called on the president to suspend executions pending a more conclusive study. One month later, Democratic Senators Carl Levin of Michigan, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Tom Harkin of Iowa, joined Feingold and Jackson in asking the president for a commission to investigate the fairness of the death penalty.

Both Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George Bush support the death penalty. Gore has commented on the racial disparities that plague the law but does not condone a suspension of executions. A spokesman for Bush has stated that the presidential candidate supports the death penalty because it deters crime but that he also "understands the complexity of each individual death penalty decision." Texas ranks first in executions nationwide.

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