The nation is at a critical juncture on the death penalty. Almost weekly we hear of someone being removed from death row either by execution or exoneration. The debate about the death penalty seems to have shifted from whether or not one supports the death penalty to the means by which people end up on death row. Questions of prosecutorial misconduct, incompetent counsel, inadmissable but exculpatory evidence (such as DNA), race, poverty, and even the county in which a defendant commits a crime, all point to a system that is badly broken and unfixable. This shift provides abolitionist and "soft" supporters of the death penalty with an opportunity to increase the dialogue and expose the flaws in the system so that political leaders and the American public will conclude that the use of the death penalty should be ended.
Taking advantage of this new debate, a bi-partisan bill, The Innocence Protection Act, will soon be introduced. It seeks to remedy some of the worst problems with the death penalty. While these "fixes" are, for Catholics, a means to an end (that of abolition), they have the potential to shine a bright light on a system where the potential exists that an innocent person will be put to death. This exposure, we believe, will lead to abolition.
The Innocence Protection Act is sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Bob Smith (R-OR) and Susan Collins (R-ME) and by Representatives William Delahunt (D-MA) and Ray LaHood (R-IL). The bill does a number of things:
- DNA PROVISIONS: Establishes rules and procedures governing applications for DNA testing by inmates (whether or not they are on death row) in the Federal system, and conditions receipt of Federal grants for DNA-related programs on an assurance that the State will adopt adequate procedures for preserving biological material. Prohibits States from denying applications for DNA testing by death row inmates if the proposed testing has the potential to produce new exculpatory evidence material to the inmate's claim of innocence. Preservation and access are key to insuring that innocent people are not executed.
- COMPETENT COUNSEL PROVISIONS: Establishes a National Commission on Capital Representation to develop standards for providing adequate legal representation for indigents facing a death sentence. In addition, the bill establishes a grant program to help States implement the Commission's standards. The bill would also drop some of the procedural barriers to Federal habeas corpus review if the State did not provide adequate legal representation to the convicted person in accordance with the Commission's standards.
- INFORMED JURY PROVISIONS: Provides juries in Federal death penalty prosecutions brought under the drug kingpin statute the option of recommending life imprisonment without parole. Encourages States to allow defendants in capital cases to have the jury instructed on all sentencing options, including parole eligibility rules and terms.
- MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS: a) Raises the total amount of damages that may be awarded against the United States in cases of unjust imprisonment from $5,000 to $50,000 a year in a non-death penalty case, or $100,000 a year in a death penalty case; b) Expresses the sense of the Congress that the death penalty is disproportionate and offends contemporary standards of decency when applied to juvenile offenders and the mentally retarded.
Since the mid-seventies, the U.S. Catholic bishops have opposed the death penalty. In St. Louis in 1999, Pope John Paul II called capital punishment "cruel and unnecessary" to keep society safe. The position of the Church is clear: we should end the death penalty because there are more humane ways of keeping society safe from an unjust aggressor.
While The Innocence Protection Act does not end capital punishment, it does offer opponents a realistic way to demonstrate the fallacies of this system. Since it is designed by humans, the possibilities for mistakes and abuse are ever-present. When a life is at stake, there is no room for such error.
Visit, call, and write to your Senators and Representative and urge them to support The Innocence Protection Act. If your Senator or Representative is a member of the Judiciary Committee (see attached), please urge them to hold hearings on the bill and to send it to the floor of their respective chambers for a vote.
- Other Federal Legislation S. 233
Moratoria: Senator Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. Jackson (D-IL) have introduced bills (S233 and HR 321, respectively) to place a moratorium on executions by the Federal Government and urge the States to do the same, while a National Commission on the Death Penalty reviews the fairness of the imposition of the death penalty.
- MORATORIUM 2000: Sr. Helen Prejean continues to be a leading voice calling for an end to capital punishment. She is the chief advocate for MORATORIUM 2000, which is a petition drive organized to collect millions of signatures calling on the United States to stop executing its citizens. Please sign the petition yourself and collect signatures for this important endeavor. Petition forms can be found on their website: www.moratorium2000.org.
For further information: Dan Misleh 202.541.3190;,fax 202.541.3339; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Congressional Targets for the Innocence Protection Act
(* indicates original co-sponsor)
|Senate Judiciary Committee Members||House Judiciary Members|
Hatch, UT, Chair
Leahy, VT, Ranking*
Sensenbrenner, WI, Chair
Conyers, Jr., MI