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."
Three-quarters of Americans believe that an innocent person has been executed within the last five years and that conviction is resulting in lower levels of support for the death penalty, according to a study published in the February issue of Criminology & Public Policy. The study, conducted by researchers James D. Unnever of Radford University and Francis T. Cullen of the University of Cincinnati, found that support for capital punishment was significantly lower among both blacks and whites who believe the death penalty is applied unfairly. Only 68.6% of respondents support the death penalty among those who believe an innocent person has been executed, versus 86.9% of the respondents who do not believe any innocent person has been executed. When life in prison without the possibility of parole was offered as an alternative sentence for capital murder, less than half of all Americans who believe an innocent person has been executed supported the death penalty. The researchers analyzed data collected by the Gallup Organization to conduct the study. Criminology & Public Policy is an academic journal published by the American Society of Criminology.
Nancy Filiault, whose sister was murdered in 2000, testified that she opposes capital punishment because the legal process further traumatizes victims' families. At the conclusion of a Judiciary Committee hearing on legislation introduced to replace Connecticut's death penalty with a life-without-parole sentence, Filiault said that sitting through the capital trial of the man charged with the murder was "heinous, incredibly cruel, and traumatizing." The defendant, who confessed to the crime, was willing to plead guilty almost immediately if the state agreed to give him a sentence of life without parole. Prosecutors, however, insisted on seeking the death penalty, a decision that resulted in family members having to endure nearly four years of pre-trial preparations and weeks of trial. At the conclusion of the trial, the defendant received the same life-without-parole sentence he had originally requested. Filiault, who said she is struggling to find forgiveness for him, stated, "I am opposed to the death penalty, and I would like to see it abolished.... The judicial process does not work."
A record 110 persons aged 60 and older were on death rows across the United States at the end of 2003, a number that is nearly triple the 39 death row seniors counted nine years ago by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, according to an article in USA Today. In many states, elderly prisoners who are not on death row are housed in geriatric facilities within prisons or they are placed in "end of life" programs, but these programs are not offered to seniors facing the death penalty.
NEW VOICES: President Bush Expresses Concerns about Racial Disparities, Fairness and Adequate Representation in Death CasesPosted: February 11, 2005
During his recent State of the Union address before Congress, President George W. Bush raised concerns about race, wrongful convictions, and adequate representation for those facing the death penalty:
Because one of the main sources of our national unity is our belief
in equal justice, we need to make sure Americans of all races and
backgrounds have confidence in the system that provides justice.
In America we must make doubly sure no person is held to account
for a crime he or she did not commit -- so we are dramatically
expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction.
Soon I will send to Congress a proposal to fund special training
for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for
their lives must have competent lawyers by their side.
Key members of the New York Legislature who supported the death penalty when it was reinstated in 1995 have changed their positions and now favor letting the law expire. Joseph Lentol, Chair of the Codes Committee of the N.Y. Assembly, says he now supports life without parole instead of restoring the death penalty for which he voted in 1995. His announcement came at the conclusion of hearings into the issue. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver stated that he will not be pressured into having the full Assembly vote on restoring capital punishment.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney joined a lengthy list of high-profile New Yorkers testifying that they oppose reinstatement of New York's death penalty. During a legislative hearing in Albany, Carney testified that New York would be best served by abandoning capital punishment and sentencing offenders to life without the possibility of parole. He cited the high costs of the death penalty and the special protections that would need to be put in place. (Albany Times-Union, February 9, 2005).
Though he has spent more than a decade in mental hospitals and his trial was postponed for 18 years due to questions regarding his sanity, Sherman Noble was recently sentenced to death in Kentucky after serving as his own defense counsel. In 1988, Noble was declared incompetent to stand trial and was placed in a mental hospital for further evaluation and treatment. He was later declared competent in 1997. Noble attempted suicide on the day of his sentencing and appeared in court in a wheelchair. The issue of whether Noble should have been allowed to serve as his own attorney is expected to be a key issue in his appeals.
Kenneth W. Starr, a former federal judge and U.S. Solicitor General, recently represented Virginia death row inmate Robin Lovitt before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Though he supports capital punishment, Starr stated that "the death penalty has to be administered with the utmost caution and reserved for the gravest offenses. This is not that kind of case. Robin Lovitt maintains his innocence, and evidence that might prove his innocence has been destroyed. I'm very distressed by that.... Society had better be
Priscilla Joyce Ford, who suffered from a variety of mental illnesses and who was the lone woman on Nevada's death row for more than twenty years, died of apparent complications from emphysema on January 29, 2005. A prison spokesman said, "She had been quiet for so long. No one ever had any problems with her (in prison). I don't remember hearing about her violating any rules." Ford was sentenced to death row after she was convicted of killing 6 people and injuring 23 others by driving her car down a crowded Reno sidewalk on Thanksgiving Day 1980.