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Revisiting capital punishment

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Recent statements on capital punishment by John Paul Stevens, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, to the American Bar Association could reignite the debate on this important issue. His statements followed several exonerations of death-row inmates through scientific evidence. He said these exonerations are significant “not only because of their relevance to the debate about the wisdom of continuing to administer capital punishment but also because they indicate that there must be serious flaws in our administration of criminal justice.”

Stevens made these statements in his home state of Illinois, where controversy flared in 2000 following a series of wrongful convictions that had led then-Gov. George Ryan to halt all executions. Stevens’ statements also come at a time when some conservative lawmakers and members of the judiciary are concerned about a series of overturned convictions and public perception of unfairness in the application of the law.

The American Bar Association has repeatedly called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty on the grounds that the risk of convicting, condemning and executing the innocent is too high, that in some cases incompetent lawyers are provided to the defendants, and on the prevalence of race discrimination.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington DC, since 1973, 119 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence. DNA testing has proven to be an extremely useful tool in this regard, and has shown significant flaws in the administration of capital punishment.

In Texas, which has the unenviable position of being the state that has carried out the most executions, three defendants were condemned to death while their lawyers slept during their trials. In all three cases the convictions and death sentences were upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. As Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, remarked at the time, “This gives a new meaning to the idea of a ‘dream team.’ “

In addition, there are several instances of misconduct by law enforcement officials, including investigatory mistakes, coerced confessions and other similar behaviors. In 1999, a Chicago Tribune article reported how prosecutors stood silent while informants lied in court — a situation that has resulted several times in the reversal of death-penalty convictions.

It has been argued that the death penalty deters homicide. However, levels of poverty have proven to be more closely connected to violent-crimes rates than other factors. Most criminologists reject the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. Texas, which has the highest number of executions in the country, has among the highest rates of violent crime.

According to statistics, minorities are far more likely than whites to be imprisoned, condemned to death and wrongfully convicted. At the national level, prosecutors are more prone to request the death penalty and juries are more likely to impose it in those cases where the victim is white or the defendant is black. As professor Jeffrey Pokorak has indicated, 98 percent of the chief district attorneys in death-penalty states are white; only 1 percent are black.

A Justice Department study showed that minorities made up 75 percent of the defendants for whom federal prosecutors sought the death penalty between 1995 and 1999. As professor Stephen B. Bright has stated, “Waging a war on crime has led us to tolerate gross racial discrimination in the criminal justice system that would not be tolerated in any other area of American life.”

By his remarks, Judge Stevens has made capital punishment an issue of current politics — not a legal abstraction or an issue of progressive jurisprudence. His statements give the death-penalty debate an undeniable momentum, one that may hopefully lead to the abolition of this barbaric measure.