Illinois, Nebraska Study Death Penalty As Others Quicken Use


In the face of evidence that some death-row inmates have been wrongly convicted, Illinois and Nebraska have placed informal moratoriums on capital punishment while reviews of the process are being conducted. But they are at odds with a national trend to speed up executions. Foes of the death penalty say accelerating the legal process only increases the risk of executing innocent people who have had poor representation.

The Illinois House of Representatives requested a moratorium on the death penalty pending the release of a report that will be issued as a result of hearings. The hearings, which ended last week, were fueled by the release since 1987 of 12 people facing lethal injections who were found to be innocent. Since the early 1970s, Florida has freed 18 death-row inmates, the most of any state, and Oklahoma and Texas have each released seven.

"The increasing number of innocent defendants being found on death row is a clear sign that our process for sentencing people to death is fraught with fundamental errors--errors which cannot be remedied once an execution occurs," said Attorney Richard Dieter with the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Nebraska legislature is conducting a two-year study of the death penalty, but Republican Gov. Mike Johanns this year rejected a bill calling for a moratorium on the procedure. Dieter said that although "technically the moratorium was vetoed," he doubts any executions will take place until after the study is completed.

Death penalty critics say accelerating the legal process only increases the risk of executing innocent people who have had poor attorney representation.

Since 1970, 82 people have been released from death row by presenting evidence that they were wrongly convicted. Of those, 14 were released through the federal habeas corpus process, through which an inmate can try to make a case that capital punishment would violate his or her constitutional rights.

An example of such a violation would be to argue that a defendant was provided ineffective counsel as is required by the Sixth Amendment, or that being put to death in the electric chair is cruel and unusual punishment as defined in the Eighth Amendment. New evidence, such as DNA evidence that was not previously introduced, can be offered at this stage only if an attorney ties it to a constitutional amendment, such as showing the withholding of evidence by authorities. To date, DNA has played a substantial role in freeing eight inmates from death row.

Since the early 1980s state and federal legislators have passed laws providing shorter time periods for filing habeas corpus petitions.

The death penalty act passed by Congress in 1996 established one-year statute of limitations to file a federal habeas corpus petition after a state's Supreme Court has denied a defendant's appeal. Some state legislatures have also passed laws to expedite the process. They include Arkansas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Just this year, New Jersey passed a law to speed up the appeals process.

"By making this process so complicated, it defeats the idea that everyone gets their day in court," said Attorney Elisabeth Semel, director of the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Project, which recruits pro bono attorneys for indigent death sentenced state prisoners.

Semel said the ABA had called for a moratorium on the death penalty in February 1997 because the "process has broken down so much that the risk of executing the innocent has become intolerable."

The cost of executing a prisoner far outweighs that of a life sentence, according to a Duke University study. It found that capital punishment costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution more than it would cost to incarcerate someone for life.

Elisabeth Semel said change might be on the way. Some state legislators have shown an increased level of discomfort with the current system.

In this year's legislative sessions, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts and Michigan all refused to reinstate the death penalty.

Semel said the public is beginning to take notice of the gross inequality between the sentencing of rich and poor defendants.

"If you are poor, the poor quality of representation that you receive is the surest ticket to the death house," she said.


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