ABA ASSESSMENT REPORT CALLS FOR ALABAMA DEATH PENALTY MORATORIUM
A new report issued by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project found that Alabama's death penalty fails to meet fundamental ABA standards of fairness and accuracy. An eight-member assessment team assembled in Alabama by the ABA was so troubled by its findings that it called for a moratorium on executions in the state.
The team urged lawmakers
- to take action to ensure effective representation at every stage of the capital process
- to protect innocent people on death row by providing a clear method of obtaining post-conviction DNA testing
- to protect the mentally retarded from execution, and
- to eliminate "judge override" of juries' sentencing recommendations in death penalty cases.
In addition, the report calls on the state to reserve the death penalty for the "worst of the worst" offenders, and to collect the data necessary to fully assess Alabama's death penalty system.
Among the team's key findings were:
INADEQUATE FUNDING FOR DEFENSE COUNSEL
Alabama's indigent defense system is failing and is, at best, described as a "very fragmented, mixed, and uneven system that lacks level oversight and standards. . . and does not provide uniform, quality representation to the majority of indigent defendants in the state." Furthermore, Alabama stands almost alone in failing to guarantee counsel to indigent defendants sentenced to death in post-conviction proceedings.
INSUFFICIENT PROTECTION OF MENTALLY RETARDED DEFENDANTS FROM EXECUTION
Alabama has not adopted a law setting out standards and procedures for determining which individuals have mental retardation and are therefore ineligible for the death penalty. This presents a continuing risk that Alabama may execute a mentally retarded offender, despite the constitutional prohibition against it.
INADEQUATE ACCESS TO DNA TESTING
Alabama has failed to pass legislation providing convicted offenders a clear method for obtaining post-conviction DNA testing, making it nearly impossible for individuals filing newly discovered evidence claims to obtain further DNA testing and have their claims heard.
LACK OF JUROR RESPONSIBILITY FOR SENTENCING
Research has found that Alabama capital jurors do not understand their role and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence. Over 54% of capital jurors interviewed did not understand that any evidence could be considered in mitigation, over 53% believed that the defense had to prove mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt, and over 55% did not understand that they could consider any factor in mitigation regardless of whether other jurors agreed.
LIMITED PROPORTIONALITY REVIEW
When it conducts proportionality review, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals looks only to cases where the death penalty was imposed under similar circumstances, rather than also considering cases in which the death penalty was sought but not imposed and cases in which the death penalty could have been sought but was not. This type of review is inherently limited and incapable of uncovering potentially serious disparities.
FAILURE TO REVIEW THE "WORST OF THE WORST" ACCORDINGLY
Alabama courts have not systematically reviewed cases involving the aggravating circumstance that a crime was "especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel compared to other capital offenses." Failure to scrutinize this factor carefully can result in prosecutors using it as a "catch-all" provision, one not subject to appropriate limitation.
The Alabama death penalty assessment is the second in a series of state reviews being sponsored by the ABA. The eight-member panel included attorneys, law professors, and a state senator.
(Alabama ABA Death Penalty Assessment Report, June 2006).
Read the Executive Summary.
Read the Full Report.
See DPIC's Representation and Arbitrariness Web pages.