The Innocence Protection Act is a proposed federal law that would require that all available evidence be completely and fairly evaluated before a person is put to death.
It would help insure that every person accused of a capital crime has access to a competent and experienced attorney. It would do this by establishing a National Commission on Capital Representation to develop standards for providing adequate legal representation for indigents facing a death sentence, and by setting up a grant program to help States implement such standards.
It would provide condemned prisoners with the right to have DNA evidence tested (in cases where such evidence is available). It would condition receipt of federal grants for DNA-related programs on the assurance that a State would adopt adequate procedures for preserving biological material. It would prohibit States from denying applications for DNA testing by death row inmates if such testing had the potential to produce new exculpatory evidence relating to the inmate's claim of innocence.
It would encourage States to allow juries in capital cases to be informed as to whether they have the option of handing down a sentence of life imprisonment without parole instead of a death sentence.
The Innocence Protection Act was introduced in March 2001 as S.486 in the Senate and as H.R.912 in the House of Representatives. It currently is cosponsored by more than a quarter of the Senate and approximately one-half of the House. Although most cosponsors are Democratic, the bill enjoys significant support from Republicans as well.
One hearing on the bill was held in the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2001. No hearing has yet been scheduled by the House Judiciary Committee. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and chief sponsor of S.486, is currently working hard to convince a majority of his committee to mark up the bill and bring it to the full Senate for consideration. Such a step could greatly improve chances for action in the House.
The bill's language relating to DNA testing enjoys wide support. Opposition to the bill appears to be centered on issues involving the provision of adequate legal counsel. Some opponents charge that the rights and effectiveness of local district attorneys would be unduly restrained. Supporters emphasize that it does not force States to impose such restrictions, but simply takes a carrot-and-stick approach that allows States to make changes where necessary. Minimum national standards are needed, supporters argue, in order to fulfill the Constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of counsel to all defendants.
The Innocence Protection Act would not end the death penalty, which is the goal of the nation's Catholic Bishops. However, the Bishops support this bill because it would help protect innocent people from a sentence of death and because it encourages further national debate about the morality and effectiveness of the death penalty.
What You Can Do
Here are two major talking points that may help you win the support of Senators and Representatives who have not yet cosponsored the Innocence Protection Act:
The need for such a law is underscored by the fact that since 1976, when the death penalty was instated in the U.S., approximately 100 people awaiting execution have managed to prove - often with the aid of volunteer attorneys and amateur investigators - that they were wrongly sentenced to death. If you know of one or more such instances in your own state, cite them.
In addition to preventing the sending of innocent people to death row, the bill is likely to reduce violent crimes by making certain that the true perpetrators of such crimes are apprehended. This is underscored by several Republican and Democratic cosponsors of the legislation who, like Senator Leahy, are former prosecutors. They agree with his statement that "Good prosecutors want to convict the right person, not to get a conviction that may be a mistake and leave the real culprit in the clear."
www.usccb.org/sdwp/national/criminal/savindex.shtml, click on Stand Against Violence Policy Agenda, also see the web site of the Justice Project's Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform (www.CJReform.org)
For More Information
Andy Rivas 202.541.3190; (fax) 202.541.3339; email@example.com or Frank McNeirney, DSD's Consultant on the Death Penalty; firstname.lastname@example.org.