The federal government (including the military) and 38 states have statutes authorizing the use of the death penalty. Currently, there are over 3,500 inmates on death row across the United States and as of February 3, there are 25 inmates scheduled for executions this year. So far in 2004, there have been nine men executed. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, there have been nearly 900 inmates put to death in the U.S., 22 of whom were executed for murders committed while they were juveniles. In that same time period, 111 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence, and 220 death row inmates have been granted clemency because of doubts about their guilt or concerns about the death penalty process.
On November 5, 2003, the U. S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 3214, the Advancing Justice Through DNA Technology Act of 2003. This DNA Act would authorize funding to help reduce the backlog of DNA samples untested in our nations crime laboratories and it would also provide funding for DNA testing to help prove the innocence of some death row inmates. This legislation contains provisions from the Innocence Protection Act (IPA) which the USCCB has supported (for years). The DNA Act garnered broad bipartisan support in the House vote, 357 to 67, and is now awaiting debate by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bills Senate number is S. 1700. Much of the credit for the large margin of victory in the House goes to our network, and many of our partners, who have spent the past several years advocating on behalf of the IPA. The outlook for passage of this bill is promising.
Senator Feingold (D-WI) has re-introduced his Moratorium bill, S. 132, the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act, which the Conference also supports. The proposed Moratorium would prohibit the federal government from carrying out the federal death penalty until Congress has considered the final findings and recommendations of a new Commission. This Commission would review whether administration of the death penalty is consistent with constitutional requirements of fairness, justice, equality, and due process. This bill, while it is supported by death penalty opponents, has little chance of passage in the current climate.
Supreme Court Action
On January 26, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review Roper v. Simmons. This Missouri case raises the question whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute people for capital crimes committed while they were juveniles. The Conference is preparing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the inmate who was a juvenile when he committed his crime, and will be inviting other religious denominations to co-sign the brief. In the McCarver and Atkins cases, in 2001, the Supreme Court was persuaded that evolving standards of decency make it cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment, to execute persons with mental retardation. We are working for a similar result in this case with respect to juvenile offenders.
The DNA Act would not end the use of the death penalty, which is the Conferences ultimate objective. The USCCB supports the Act because it will help to protect innocent people from a wrongful sentence of death and because the bill would encourage further national debate about the morality and effectiveness of the death penalty. Senator Feingolds Moratorium Act would stop executions and focus attention on what is wrong with the use of capital punishment.
What You Can Do
Please contact your Senators and ask them to take action and support passage of S. 1700. Despite the large margin of victory in the House, passage in the Senate is expected to be a tougher battle. The Senate bill, S. 1700, has the support of the Senate Judiciary leaders, Hatch (R-UT) and Leahy (D-VT) and a bipartisan group of 21 other senators. The National District Attorneys Association is fighting hard to kill the legislation. Remind your Senators that the President, many prosecutors and defense attorneys, and the overwhelming majority of the House support the bill because it would give greater access to DNA testing by convicted offenders and it would help the states improve the quality of their legal representation in capital cases. Call the Capitol switchboard, (202) 224-3121.
For More Information
Andy Rivas 202-541-3190; (fax) 202-541-3339; firstname.lastname@example.org or Frank McNierney (DSD Consultant on the death penalty) email@example.com.