Charles B. Blackmar, senior judge of Missouri's Supreme Court from 1982-1992, recently called for consideration of abolishing the death penalty. In a letter to the editor that appeared in the Kansas City Star, Blackmar stated:
The Legislative Coordinating Council of Kansas, a group of legislative leaders who represent the Kansas legislature when it's not in session, recently authorized committees to study three aspects of the state's capital punishment law this summer. Among the topics under review are the cost of imposing the death penalty, the state's funding of the Board of Indigents' Defense Services and its Death Penalty Unit, and the effectiveness of laws to ensure that mentally ill defendants are not executed. The cost study won't begin until the legislative auditors complete a review of the costs of prosecuting death penalty cases, which is excepted to begin this month. The study results for all three reviews will be given to legislators during their 2004 session.
The ACLU Capital Punishment Project recently released "Three Decades Later: Why We Need A Temporary Halt on Executions," a report that comes just over 30 years after the Supreme Court's Furman v. Georgia decision that placed a temporary halt on executions because the death penalty was being applied in an arbitrary, discriminatory, and capricious manner. While the Supreme Court upheld state capital punishment statutes written after Furman in its 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, the report notes that questions of fairness remain. In its report, the ACLU calls for a temporary halt to executions to give states the chance to review these concerns, including issues such as wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, geographic disparity, and racial and socioeconomic bias. Read the report.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has voiced support for legislation to impose a two-year moratorium on executions in North Carolina while the state studies its death penalty. In its announcement, the ABA noted a "growing consensus within the legal community that North Carolina urgently needs a moratorium on executions until it evaluates issues of fairness, due process and possible racial bias in its death penalty system." The bill, which was recently passed by the North Carolina Senate, is currently under consideration by members of the state's House of Representatives. The ABA has also called for a national moratorium on executions until the death penalty is studied and procedural flaws are fixed.
Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford said that criminal defendants in Texas are at the mercy of prosecutors in an unfair system that emphasizes winning rather than justice. Bradford said that he believes there is sufficient probable cause to convene a court of inquiry to investigate the entire Police Department crime lab, not just the DNA portion (see below). Bradford also voiced support for changes that would help to balance the Texas justice system, which he believes currently works in favor of prosecutors. He described the attitude in the district attorney's office as, "What can I do to win? Win, win, win." Bradford supports measures such as an open discovery process in criminal trails and standardizing the appointment of forensics experts to assist court-appointed attorneys in cases with DNA evidence."
As Kansas lawmakers struggle to make ends meet, some are calling for an examination of the costs associated with capital punishment. Senators Steve Morris and Anthony Hensley have opposing views on the death penalty, but the men recently joined forces to propose an audit of the state's death penalty. Among other items, the audit will review $9 million in expenses filed by the Board of Indigents' Defense Services between 1995-2002. The funding was used to defend those facing capital charges. While Hensley opposes capital punishment and Morris voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1994, both believe that now is the time to examine the costs and effectiveness of capital punishment and to consider other less expensive options. Morris, a Republican, noted, "Overall, we just need to evaluate the whole death penalty issue. If it's going to take millions and millions of dollars per inmate and years before we can execute someone, that's a major policy issue we need to look at."
An editorial by Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, notes that crime labs are overwhelmingly backlogged with work and that deficiencies of personnel, space and equipment in forensic science labs often lead to shoddy practices and erroneous test results, as recently exemplified by the problems uncovered at the Houston Police Department DNA lab (see below). Dr. Wecht notes:
There can be little doubt in the minds of trained, experienced forensic scientists that testing defects, backlog pressures, inadequately qualified personnel, and prosecutorial bias exist in many other DNA labs even though they have not yet been uncovered and publicly reported.
Until these glaring deficiencies are identified, objectively reviewed, and carefully corrected, society cannot expect that justice will be served.
State lawmakers should carefully scrutinize DNA labs that use inferior testing methods that lead to inaccurate results. An immediate freeze on executions is essential until scrupulous federal and state reviews of all DNA labs have been accomplished. This is the only just way to proceed. Close attention to this critical problem will not only lower the risk of executing innocent people, it will also facilitate the capture and conviction of the guilty. (Emphasis added).
For nearly two decades, Dennis Halstead, John Kogut, and John Restivo maintained their innocence in the 1985 murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. Although DNA testing in the 1990's cast doubt on their guilt, the men remained in jail in New York because a judge deemed the tests not reliable enough to overturn the convictions. Now the men have been freed from prison after prosecutors joined defense attorneys in asking a second judge to vacate the convictions based on more sophisticated DNA evidence showing that semen found on the victim's body was from another man. The new tests were conducted on behalf of The Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, which uses DNA technology to help free the wrongly convicted, and Centurion Ministries of New Jersey. Following the release of Halstead, Kogut, and Restivo, district attorney Denis Dillon noted that the men didn't get a fair trial, but he said that the state is still considering whether it will retry the men for the murder.
An article in the Wisconsin Law Review, "The Right to Effective Assistance of Capital Postconviction Counsel: Constitutional Implications of Statutory Grants of Capital Counsel" by Celestine Richards McConville, examines the need for experienced and effective counsel during state and federal capital postconviction proceedings. The author notes that, "Despite the important role of postconviction counsel, the United States Supreme Court has held that criminal defendants seeking state postconviction relief possess no constitutional right to counsel. . . .As a result, the existence of any right to counsel in postconviction proceedings depends entirely on the federal and state legislatures." The article lists standards for determining qualified counsel, and it explores how the appointment of effective postconviction counsel can play a crucial role in ensuring accuracy and fairness in death penalty appeals.
Ohio Governor Bob Taft has granted clemency to Jerome Campbell, who was scheduled to be executed on June 27th for a 1988 murder in Cincinnati. The clemency, Taft's first since he took office, follows the recommendation of the state's Parole Board, which voted 6-2 in favor of clemency. Defense attorneys maintain that Campbell should be retried because a DNA test he requested from the state showed that blood on his gym shoes introduced as trial evidence was Campbell's own blood, not the victim's. The results marked the first time an Ohio prisoner obtained DNA test results through a state law that allows death row inmates to have DNA testing at the state's expense. In its recommendation, the Parole Board noted that jurors may have spared Campbell's life during his initial trial had they had the opportunity to consider the DNA information.