Recent Legislative Activity

NEW VOICES: Montana Assistant Attorney General Calls for Death Penalty Repeal

Montana Assistant Attorney General John Connor has voiced support for a legislative measure that would abolish capital punishment in his state. Stating his belief that the death penalty does not deter crime and is expensive, Connor told the Montana House Judiciary Committee, "It seems to me to be the ultimate incongruity to say we respect life so much that we're going to dedicate all our money, all our resources, our legal expertise and our entire system to try and take your life. . . . Frankly, I just don't think I can do it anymore." Senator Dan Harrington, who sponsored this year's repeal measure, added that it is wrong to teach children "that to prevent violence we beget violence." He also noted that the death penalty is costly and unfair.

Maryland Commission Recommends Abolition of Death Penalty

The Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment voted on November 12 to recommend the abolitiion of the death penalty in the state. In a 13-7 vote, the Commission cited the possibility that an innocent person could be mistakenly executed, as well as geographical and racial disparities in how it is used. Benjamin Civiletti, the chair of the commission and a former U.S. attorney general, said, “It’s haphazard in how it’s applied, and that’s terribly unfair.”

The Chairman also shared that he does not have a moral opposition to the death penalty but is against it because of cost, the potential for an innocent person to be executed, and jurisdictional disparities. Panel members concluded that there was a “real possibility” an innocent person could someday be executed in Maryland. A commission member who was on death row for a murder he did not commit, Kirk Bloodsworth, said, “In 1985, I went to death row for two years.” He continued, “Now if that’s not real, I don’t know what is.” He was later cleared by DNA evidence.

The panel also found no persuasive evidence to support deterrence of homicides in Maryland through the use of the death penalty. A report will be prepared for the General Assembly by December 15 explaining the Commission's recommendation and including the minority point of view.

EDITORIALS: New Hampshire's Concord Monitor Says "Abolish the Death Penalty"

Following the release of the report from the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty, New Hampshire's Concord Monitor called for an end to capital punishment in the state. The Commission concluded a year of public hearings and careful study and chose by a 12-10 vote to recommend neither expanding nor abolishing the death penalty. However, the Monitor pointed out that the evidence presented to the commission was primarily in favor of repealing the death penalty. One of the many arguments against the death penalty considered by the Commission was its arbitrary nature. Outcomes of capital cases depend on the makeup of capital juries, the resources available to the defendant, and the potentially unequal skills of prosecutors and defense lawyers.  The editorial noted that former attorney general Phillip McLaughlin recalled a case in which he charged the wrong man with murder and another in which an investigator failed to share evidence that might have proved that someone else committed the crime. He voted to repeal the law.  The editorial concluded: "States are not infallible. A life wrongly taken by the state cannot be returned. But an innocent person serving life without parole can be freed. New Hampshire should join the states and the many nations that have progressed beyond capital punishment."  Read the full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Illinois--"Outlaw Death Penalty to Save Lives and Cash"

In a recent editorial, the Chicago Sun-Times supported the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois during the current legislative session.  The paper noted its past support for capital punishment:  "In the past, we've supported the death penalty as long as the legal system gives the accused a fair trial that results in a verdict of guilt beyond resonable doubt.  Sadly, in light of experiences in recent years, that goal seems unrealistic."  Among the reasons for favoring abolition, the paper wrote that, "The death penalty is arbitrary - handed down in some cases but not in others with similar facts.  Even with the best safeguards in place, it's unreliable, with irreversible consequences.  And it's costly," consuming $100 million in the past 7 years.  As an alternative, the editorial noted that, "Like the death penalty, life without parole keeps heinous criminals off our streets, deters serious offenses and gives victims a sense that justice has been served."  Read full editorial below.

NEW VOICES: Ohio "Timeout from Death"-Part II

Although the number of executions in Ohio in the past two years is second only to those in Texas, there is considerable support in Ohio for a review of the entire system. Two former prison directors, Reginald Wilkinson and Terry Collins, agree that death row cases should be reviewed to decide whether they are the “worst of the worst.” Wilkinson (pictured), who was director from 1991 to 2006 and witnessed many executions, would take it even further: "I'm of the opinion that we should eliminate capital punishment," he said. "Having been involved with justice agencies around the world, it's been somewhat embarrassing, quite frankly, that nations just as so-called civilized as ours think we're barbaric because we still have capital punishment."  Earlier this year, Ohio passed legislation aimed at preventing wrongful convictions. The law requires the preservation of crime scene evidence and aims to reduce faulty eyewitness identifications. The bill's sponsor, Republican State Senator David Goodman, said an independent review of death row cases and a moratorium on executions would also help prevent wrongful convictions. "It was astounding to see what was presented to me in terms of mistaken identification in criminal cases. I am not anti-death penalty, but if there is anything we can do to make sure we are not executing the wrong man, we should do it."

FOREIGN NATIONALS: Texas Execution Delayed Following State Department Request

A hearing to set an execution date for Texas death row inmate Humberto Leal was postponed after the presiding judge received a letter from a high-ranking U.S. State Department official. Leal, a Mexican citizen who was sentenced to death in 1995, had already been transferred to Bexar County Jail for the hearing to set the execution date. Harold Hongju Koh, a top legal adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote the judge requesting an indefinite postponement while Congress is working on legislation that could affect Leal’s case. Leal is one of 51 Mexican citizens included in a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (Avena and Other Mexican Nationals) that Mexican foreign nationals on U.S. death rows were not given proper notification of their rights to contact their foreign consulate. Koh said that the case is important in U.S. foreign relations, and wrote that, “The Executive Branch is engaging in consultations with Congress and with the Government of Mexico to determine how best to ensure the United States complies with its obligations under Avena.”

Innocence Commission Created in Florida

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canaday issued an Administrative Order creating a Florida Innocence Commission “to conduct a comprehensive study of the causes of wrongful conviction and of measures to prevent such convictions.”  The Administrative Order creating the commission stated the basis for the investigation: "WHEREAS, the occurrence of cases in which the innocent are convicted and punished constitutes a grave injustice; and WHEREAS, the imperative of avoiding such injustice requires a comprehensive examination of the causes of wrongful convictions and an in-depth consideration of measures to prevent the conviction of the innocent." The commission will only review cases that have already been determined to be wrongful convictions.  The 23-member Innocence Commission is scheduled to submit an interim report to the Court no later than June 30, 2011 and a final report and recommendations to the Court no later than June 30, 2012. 

NEW VOICES: Former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Calls for Abolition

Joseph P. Nadeau, who served on New Hampshire's Supreme Court for six years and as a judge for 37 years, recently testified before the state's death penalty commission about his opposition to the practice. In an op-ed, Judge Nadeau summarized the moral and practical reasons why he believes capital punishment should be repealed. "Our thinking evolves, as people, technology, and societies progress," he said.  "And what is acceptable at one time in our history may become unwelcome at another. So we are encouraged to re-examine our core principles and to consider whether death continues to be an acceptable punishment in New Hampshire." He dismissed the notion that the death penalty is needed to honor law enforcement officers: "Its abolition does not dishonor those who serve in law enforcement because honor comes from personal pride and earned respect, not from the ability of the state to execute a human being."

Judge Nadeau continued, "No legal system is perfect. Human beings make mistakes. That is one reason we accept the notion that occasionally the guilty will go free and the innocent will be convicted. But I do not believe anyone accepts the notion that it is all right for a person to be wrongfully executed. So with the most respected judicial system in the world, how can we willingly embrace a sentence which cannot be reversed after it is imposed; and how can we continue to believe that it is morally acceptable for the state to take a human life?" Read full op-ed below.