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Members of New Mexico's House of Representatives have passed a bill to abolish the death penalty, marking the first time that either chamber of the state's legislature has passed such a measure. Representative Gail Beam, who has sponsored the abolition bill every two years since she was elected in 1996, noted that the vote was "a historic opportunity for New Mexico to take a step that's both thoughtful and practical and to join other industrialized democracies in replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole." Supporters of the measure anticipate a close vote in the Senate, where the bill must first be reviewed by the Senate Public Affairs Committee. Some Senators have called for passage of the legislation due to concerns about innocence and the fact that capital punishment fails to deter violent crime. "Lately I've been looking at all these cases where people have been sentenced to death, and with DNA and other things, they found out all these mistakes. That doesn't make any sense," said Senator Phil Griego, a former death penalty supporter who has announced he will vote for the Senate version of Beam's bill. The last time a death penalty bill reached the floor of either chamber was in 2001, when the Senate narrowly defeated an abolition bill by a vote of 21 to 20.
Former FBI Chief and federal judge William Sessions recently joined two other former federal judges and a prosecutor urging the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal from Ohio death row inmate John Spirko. In their brief, Sessions and his colleagues assert that the prosecution argued a theory at Spirko's trial that it had to know was at least partly suspect. "When the ultimate penalty is at issue, justice demands scrupulous conduct from prosecutors. It is not enough for a prosecutor to weigh all of the evidence, determine that a defendant is guilty, and pursue such a verdict vigorously if he holds back information unfavorable to his desired outcome," reads the group's brief.
Ohio originally charged Spirko and a co-defendant with the murder of postal worker in 1982. Evidence has since surfaced indicating that the state had photos showing that the co-defendant was 500 miles away at the time of the murder. Spirko maintains that those photos should have been turned over to the defense. The co-defendant was never tried for the murder and the state eventually dropped charges against him.
William Sessions is a member of the Constitution Project's Death Penalty Initiative, which helped organize the writing and submission of the brief on behalf of Spirko.
The Chair of the Judiciary Committee of the New York Assembly recently voiced her strong concerns about the state's death penalty. Although she supported capital punishment earlier, Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein spoke about the evolution in her thinking and her particular concerns about the risk of executing the innocent: "It was an evolutionary process. But clearly the advent of DNA evidence and the dramatic number of individuals who have been exonerated and freed from death row in states around the country was something that was building in my mind....
Texas should overhaul its executive clemency process to ensure a fair and equitable justice system, according to a new report by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Innocence Network.
New York's dormant death penalty law fails to meet the minimum standards recommended to ensure accuracy and fairness, according to a new report issued by the Committee on Capital Punishment of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Based on a comparison of New York's existing statute to standards established by expert committees in Illinois and Massachusetts, the Committee urged New York lawmakers to thoroughly analyze the state's statute in light of emerging information about the high potential for wrongful conviction and unfairness in death penalty cases.
Kansas lawmakers have decided not to vote on a proposed fix to the state's death penalty statute, a decision that could put the future of the law in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2004, the Kansas Supreme Court overturned the death penalty because of the way jurors were instructed in capital cases. Some legislators are hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the Kansas court's decision. It could be months before the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether to take the case.
NEW VOICES: Former New York Prison Superintendent Talks About the Emotional Costs of Capital PunishmentPosted: February 21, 2005
Retired New York prison superintendent Stephen Dalsheim recently cautioned legislators about re-instating the death penalty, noting his concerns about innocence and the toll executions take on prison employees. "You know, as I grow older, I realize maybe we can get beyond vengeance," Dalsheim said. "The death penalty is fraught with the possibility
By a vote of 5-4, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared the execution of juvenile offenders to be unconstitutional. Today's historic ruling in Roper v. Simmons holds that this practice violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. The decision will result in a new sentence for Christopher Simmons and likely new sentences for the 71 other juvenile offenders currently on state death rows across the country. Simmons' position was joined by many professional organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Bar Association, and by numerous countries from around the world. Prior to today's ruling, 19 states with the death penalty prohibited the execution of juvenile offenders. Twenty-two inmates have been executed for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18 since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
PUBLIC OPINION: N.Y. Times Poll Finds A Majority of New Yorkers Now Support Alternatives to the Death PenaltyPosted: February 16, 2005
A recent New York Times poll found that 56% of surveyed New York voters prefer a sentence of life in prison (either without parole or with the possibility of parole) over the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Only 34% said they supported the death penalty, a significant drop from the 48% who supported it in 1994, just prior to New York's reinstatement of capital punishment. This shift against the death penalty comes as state lawmakers are considering whether to abandon or try to fix New York's unconstitutional death penalty statute. (New York Times, February 15, 2005).
A new American Bar Association study has found that thousands of suspects, including some who are later given death sentences, risk wrongful conviction because they are pressured to accept guilty pleas or have incompetent attorneys. After surveying 22 states, the ABA committee leading the study stated that legal representation for indigent defendants is in "a state of crisis."