Citing the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a United Nations panel recommended that the United States impose a moratorium on executions. The report, issued on July 28 by the U.N. Human Rights Committee, stated the panel was "concerned by studies according to which the death penalty may be imposed disproportionately on ethnic minorities as well as on low-income groups, a problem which does not seem to be fully acknowledged."
The panel, made up of 18 independent experts who review the practices of 156 countries who have ratified the covenant, urged the U.S. to limit the number of crimes that carry a penalty of death to the most serious crimes. It also requested that the federal government assess the extent that death sentences are handed down disproportionately on minorities and poor people.
The U.S. mission issued a statement in response to the report, but did not specifically mention the committee's proposals relating to capital punishment.
Criticism by the panel brings no penalties beyond international scrutiny. The U.S. ratified the treaty in 1992 with a number of reservations, including provisions on the death penalty.
In a recent editorial, the Delaware News Journal concluded that the uncertainties and delays of the death penalty favor ending the system and replacing it with a sentence of life without parole. Such a system would better serve victims and their families, and bring swifter justice:
The latest argument over the death penalty centers on a seemingly simple question: Is the current method of execution cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution?
An article in the July Scientific American examines the extent to which the television program "C.S.I." and similar forensically-focused programs have increased the expectations of jurors in criminal trials. The article quotes University of California, Irvine, researchers Simon Cole and Rachel Dioso questioning the real impact of such programs: "That television might have an effect on courtrooms is not implausible. . . but to argue that 'C.S.I.' and similar shows are actually raising the number of acquittals is a staggering claim, and the remarkable thing is that, speaking forensicially, there is not a shred of evidence to back it up. There is a robust field of research on jury decision-making but no study finding any C.S.I. effect. There is only anecdotal evidence."
Even if forensic shows are not measurably influencing the demands and decisions of juries, television is unquestionably impacting the nation's forensic laboratories. As police investigators gain appreciation for the advantages of science, they are collecting and submitting more and more material from cases for forensic analysis. In 1989, Virginia labs processed only a few dozen cases. The number of cases being submitted this year has ballooned into the thousands. Labs across the country are experiencing increasingly larger backlogs, even though crime rates have consistantly dropped since 1994.
Four years after Andrea Yates faced the death penalty for the drowning deaths of her children, a second jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. In Yates' first capital murder trial in 2002, jurors convicted her of murder and recommended a sentence of life in prison. That conviction was overturned on appeal last year after it was shown that the state's psychiatric witness presented false testimony. In the second trial, jurors deliberated for 13 hours before finding that Yates did not know her crime was wrong because of her long history of mental illness.
Yates had a history of psychiatric hospitalizations and two suicide attempts before she drowned her children in 2001. She was later diagnosed with postpartum depression with psychotic features and schizophrenia. During their deliberations, jurors viewed a videotaped evaluation of Yates by Dr. Philip Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist. He found that Yates did not know that killing her children was wrong because she was trying to save them from hell. Resnick, who interviewed Yates shortly after the 2001 murders, stated she was delusional and believed her children would grow up to be criminals because she had ruined them. The jurors also viewed a videotaped evaluation conducted by Dr. Park Dietz, a state's witness who testified during Yates' first trial. Dietz concluded that Yates was not psychotic when she drowned her children, and he went on to testify that an episode of "Law & Order" depicted a woman who was acquitted by reason of insanity after drowning her children. It was later determined that no such episode of "Law & Order" existed, and Dietz's misleading testimony led an appeals court to overturn the conviction. The judge barred attorneys in this most recent trial from mentioning that issue.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice has unanimously recommended that state lawmakers require electronic recording of all jailhouse interrogations. The commission added that the law should include a provision stating that if an officer fails to record an interrogation, jurors would be instructed to view the defendant's statement with caution. Emphasizing that false confessions have been identified as the second most frequent cause of wrongful convictions, the commission's report also suggested that the legislature provide funding to police departments to implement a policy of videotaping interrogations in felony cases.
"Although it may seem surprising that factually innocent persons would falsely confess to the commission of serious crimes, the research provides ample evidence that this phenomenon occurs with greater frequency than widely assumed," the commission stated.
Delaware is the most recent state to have its executions halted while courts examine whether the state's lethal injection procedures are cruel and unusual. Similar constitutional challenges have effectively put executions on hold in California, New Jersey, Florida, and Missouri. In a meeting with Delaware officials, Chief District Judge Sue L. Robinson ordered the state to respond to a lawsuit filed by Robert W. Jackson, whose scheduled May 19 execution was stayed so that his lethal injection challenge could be considered in federal court. "No one else is going to be leapfrogged in front of Jackson until this question, fundamental to every capital case in Delaware, plays out. Everyone agrees this needs to be litigated," stated Jackson's attorney, Thomas Foley. Foley and other attorneys are considering turning Jackson's case into a class action suit, a decision that would formally extend the freeze on executions to all death row inmates in Delaware.
"Legal Executions in California: A Comprehensive Registry, 1851-2005," by researchers Sheila O'Hare, Irene Berry, and Jesse Silva, provides comprehensive information on legal executions in California from 1851 to the present. Starting with the year the Criminal Practices Act first authorized executions in the state, the book's entries are organized by year of execution and contain the felon's name, race, age at death and a detailed narrative of the crime that resulted in the death sentence. When available, the race and age of the victims are also provided.
During its first public hearing on capital punishment, the New Jersey Death Penalty Study Commission heard testimony from witnesses representing a broad spectrum of opinions. Almost all those testifying spoke against retaining the death penalty. Among those who testified before the 13-member panel were legal experts, religious leaders, murder victims' family members, and exonerees such as Larry Peterson, who spent 18 years in a New Jersey prison for a rape and murder he did not commit.
During the hearing, Peterson noted that he was grateful that jurors in his case chose not to hand down the death sentence sought by prosecutors because "if you take a life, you can't turn around and correct the wrong that has been done." It took Peterson's attorneys a decade to secure testing of biological samples using DNA technology. Those tests led to the reversal of his conviction and his release in May 2006. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York City, also testified about the issue of wrongful convictions during the hearing, noting, "It's ridiculous . . .to assume that mistakes will not be made. We have demonstrated that there is a lot of error in the system."