Should the Death Penalty Be Abolished or Paused Because of the Alleged Possibility of an Innocent Person Being Executed?
Ernie Chambers, JD, Nebraska State Senator, stated the following during an Apr. 16, 2015 floor debate in the Nebraska Legislature, available at legislature.ne.gov:
“I want to get as many votes as I can to abolish this death penalty…
[O]ver 150 people in the last few years have been taken off death row because they were innocent. I know there are people who want to believe that no innocent person has ever been executed in this country. But when you have this many people conclusively proved by DNA evidence to be actually innocent, there is no escaping the conclusion that innocent people have been executed…
There are cases where prosecutors withheld exculpatory information. They knew that there were bogus pieces of evidence introduced. They knew that there were defendants who were coerced into entering a guilty plea to a crime they had not committed.”Apr. 16, 2015 - Ernie Chambers, JD
George Ryan, former Governor of Illinois, in a Dec. 27, 2000 speech aired on Democracy Now, in support of his decision to impose a state-wide moratorium on executions, stated:
“Like a lot of other elected officials, I believed that there were crimes that were so heinous – and I believe that today – that the death penalty sentence is the only proper societal response. I supported the death penalty when I was in the Illinois General Assembly. I spoke for the death penalty. I voted for the death penalty. And I believed in the death penalty…
But since those days, a lot has happened to shake my faith in the death penalty system…
I said that until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent person would be put to death, nobody would meet the fate as long as I was Governor… And I won’t sign off on any death sentences until I am absolutely certain that the individual, in fact, is guilty and all rights have been preserved and safeguarded…
It was clear to me that when it came to the death penalty in Illinois there was no justice in the justice system. So on January the 31st, I told the citizens of Illinois that I was going to impose a moratorium, because of the grave concerns I had about the state’s shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row. I can’t support that system. And its administration, it’s proven to be very fraught with error, and it’s come awful close to the ultimate nightmare.”Dec. 27, 2000 - George Ryan
The American Bar Association, on its website, accessed on Aug. 7, 2008, states the following reasons for support of a federal death penalty moratorium:
“Serious questions also have been raised about the fairness of the administration of the federal capital punishment system. On September, 12, 2000, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a study of the federal death penalty that suggests the system is plagued by geographic disparities and ethnic bias. Fourteen of the 21 prisoners on federal death row at that time were from just three states – Texas, Virginia, and Missouri. The study also shows that prosecutors seek the death penalty much more often for Hispanic and African-American defendants. As of January 2002, 20 of the 24 prisoners on federal death row were African-American, Latino/a, or Asian. The ABA’s 1997 moratorium resolution applies to the federal government. Indeed, ABA Presidents have called upon the President of the United States to impose a moratorium on executions.”Aug. 7, 2008 - American Bar Association (ABA)
Russ Feingold, JD, US Senator (D-WI), on April 26, 2000, introduced the “National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2000” to Congress where he stated:
“Since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty, 87 people have been freed from death row because they were later proven innocent. That is a demonstrated error rate of 1 innocent person for every 7 persons executed. When the consequences are life and death, we need to demand the same standard for our system of justice as we would for our airlines…
It is time for the Congress to take the lead and declare once and for all that it is unacceptable to execute an innocent man or woman. It is a central pillar of our criminal justice system that it is better that many guilty people go free than that one innocent should suffer. Sadly, history has demonstrated that time and again, America has brought innocence itself to the bar and condemned it to die. That history now demonstrates that even in America, innocence itself has provided no security from the ultimate punishment…
Let us reflect to ensure that we are being just. Let us pause to be certain we do not kill a single innocent person. This is really not too much to ask for a civilized society. I urge my colleagues to join me and my distinguished colleague, Senator Levin, in sponsoring the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2000.”Apr. 26, 2000 - Russ Feingold, JD
The Board of Directors of the New York State Defenders Association, on July 25, 2002, adopted the following resolution regarding a moratorium on the death penalty:
“[M]any groups have identified serious flaws and omissions in fairness and consistency, finding that the [death penalty] system is not without risk to the innocent…
WHEREAS, events subsequent to the enactment of New York’s death penalty law, including developments in DNA testing which have called into question evidence used to convict defendants sentenced to death, have demonstrated clearly that the death penalty has been imposed on innocent people…
WHEREAS, in June 2000, a study entitled ‘A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases 1973-1995,’ … determined that appellate review of death sentences had found reversible error in 68 percent of these sentences, that in 82 percent of the cases retried after reversal a death sentence was not issued, and that in 7 percent of the retried cases the defendant was found not guilty; and…
WHEREAS, on January 31, 2000, the State of Illinois suspended executions because 13 people on death row were found to be actually innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted due, in part, to recent developments in DNA testing…
IT IS HEREBY RESOLVED THAT the New York State Defenders Association calls upon the executive and legislative branches of New York State government to enact and adopt legislation imposing a moratorium on executions.”July 25, 2002 - New York State Defenders Association
Nathan Diament, JD, Director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, in a June 5, 2001 appearance at the Pew Forum’s event “Religious Reflections on the Death Penalty,” stated:
“For a state to be properly using capital punishment, it needs to be following those guidelines that are found in the Bible. There do need, in our mind, to be clear evidences of guilt. It is not for government to use for its own ends. It is not proper for some governments to victimize others for its own purposes. There is supposed to be justice involved in this, and we believe that that’s justice related to the way God calls for justice…
Our greatest concern about capital punishment is the concern that’s been shared here and the concern that I think everyone shares. And that is the possibility that someone who’s innocent might be executed. We are not oblivious to that accusation, to that concern as being raised about capital punishment today. And so, in our resolution the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Orthodox Union (OU) resolution is calling for a nation-wide moratorium on the death penalty.”June 5, 2001 - Nathan Diament, JD
The United Nations General Assembly, on Nov. 1, 2007, in an 104-54 vote to which the US was a primary opponent, adopted a non-legally binding moratorium on the death penalty:
“The General Assembly…
Recalling also the resolutions on the question of the death penalty adopted over the past decade by the Commission on Human Rights in all consecutive sessions… in which the Commission called upon States that still maintain the death penalty to abolish it completely and, in the meantime, to establish a moratorium on executions…
Considering that the use of the death penalty undermines human dignity, and convinced that a moratorium on the use of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights, that there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable,
Welcoming the decisions taken by an increasing number of States to apply a moratorium on executions, followed in many cases by the abolition of the death penalty.”Nov. 1, 2007 - United Nations (UN)
Michele Hanisee, JD, Deputy District Attorney for the County of Los Angeles and President of the Association of District Attorneys, stated the following in her Sep. 27, 2016 article
“Those in support of abolishing the death penalty point to the possibility of an innocent person being executed… The innocent can take solace in knowing that a unanimous jury of 12 citizens must render the death verdict after an exhaustive trial where the accused murderer is represented by two highly competent attorneys and overseen by an independent judge who ensures a fair trial.
Voters understand that the criminals on death row have been convicted of the most heinous crimes. Voters also realize that those left behind, grieving families throughout California and their loved ones, don’t deserve anything less than justice.
Justice is a reformed, not eliminated death penalty.”Sep. 27, 2016 - Michele Hanisee, JD
Ronald Eisenberg, JD, Deputy District Attorney for Philadelphia, Supervisor of the Law Division, in an article titled “‘Innocence’ and the Death Penalty,” for the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association Newsletter accessed on Aug. 4, 2008, stated:
“[T]he factual basis for the Illinois moratorium is even more suspect. Governor Ryan claims that, more than half the time, Illinois capital defendants were actually innocent: twelve men executed; thirteen freed. But in reality there have been 247 death-sentenced defendants in Illinois, not just 25. Of the thirteen ‘innocents,’ five were acquitted on retrials — which means not that they were really innocent, but that they were not proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. In the other eight cases, prosecutors dismissed charges without a retrial because of evidence problems. Only one of the thirteen has been clearly established as innocent.
Questions about the Illinois moratorium, however, obscure a more fundamental problem with the moratorium movement: we already have a moratorium, in fact hundreds of them, in each and every death penalty case.
Every capital verdict is held up for years, often for decades, while the case is studied and restudied and studied again in the courts, in all its individual detail. The only defendants who would benefit from a general moratorium are those whose appeals have been rejected every time — in other words, the capital murderers who least deserve more years of delay.”Aug. 4, 2008 - Ronald Eisenberg, JD
Antonin Scalia, JD, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, in a concurring decision on June 26, 2006, in regards to the case of Kansas v. Michael Lee Marsh, wrote:
“Reversal of an erroneous conviction on appeal or on habeas, or the pardoning of an innocent condemnee through executive clemency, demonstrates not the failure of the system but its success. Those devices are part and parcel of the multiple assurances that are applied before a death sentence is carried out…
Capital cases are given especially close scrutiny at every level, which is why in most cases many years elapse before the sentence is executed. And of course capital cases receive special attention in the application of executive clemency…
As a consequence of the sensitivity of the criminal justice system to the due-process rights of defendants sentenced to death, almost two-thirds of all death sentences are overturned….
[T]hose ideologically driven to ferret out and proclaim a mistaken modern execution have not a single verifiable case to point to, whereas it is easy as pie to identify plainly guilty murderers who have been set free. The American people have determined that the good to be derived from capital punishment—in deterrence, and perhaps most of all in the meting out of condign justice for horrible crimes—outweighs the risk of error.”June 26, 2006 - Antonin Scalia, JD
Steven D. Stewart, JD, Prosecuting Attorney for Clark County Indiana, in a message on the Clark County Prosecutor website accessed on Aug. 6, 2008, wrote:
“No system of justice can produce results which are 100% certain all the time. Mistakes will be made in any system which relies upon human testimony for proof. We should be vigilant to uncover and avoid such mistakes. Our system of justice rightfully demands a higher standard for death penalty cases. However, the risk of making a mistake with the extraordinary due process applied in death penalty cases is very small, and there is no credible evidence to show that any innocent persons have been executed at least since the death penalty was reactivated in 1976.
The 100+ death row inmates ‘innocent’, ‘exonerated’ and released, as trumpeted by anti-death penalty activists, is a fraud. The actual number of factually innocent released death row inmates in closer to 40, and in any event should be considered in context of over 7,000 death sentences handed down since 1973. It stands as the most accurate judgment/sentence in any system of justice ever created. The inevitability of a mistake should not serve as grounds to eliminate the death penalty any more than the risk of having a fatal wreck should make automobiles illegal.”Aug. 6, 2008 - Steven D. Stewart, JD
Dudley Sharp, Resource Director of Justice for All, an organization advocating the use of the death penalty, in a July 2002 article for ProDeathPenalty.com titled “Innocence Issues: The Death Penalty,” wrote:
“Death penalty opponents claim that ‘Since 1973, 102 (now 114) people in 25 states have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence,’
That is a blatantly false claim…
What is the real number of actual innocents released from death row?
A review of the DPIC [Death Penalty Information Center] 102 case descriptions finds that only about 32 claim actual innocence, with alleged proof to support the claim. 12 of those 32 are DNA cases. That is 32 cases out of about 7,300 death sentences since 1973, or 0.4%…
And there is no proof of an innocent executed within the US since 1900.
Some supporters of a moratorium and death penalty opponents claim that a concern for innocents is why they want to halt executions. Yet, history and reason confirm that an end to executions will result in more innocents harmed and murdered…
At least 8% of those on death row had committed one or more murders prior to the murder(s) which put them on death row, suggesting that with 7,300 sentenced to death, since 1973, that those sent to death row had murdered at least 600 additional innocents after we failed to properly restrain them after their previous murder(s)…
It currently takes nearly 12 years to execute those sentenced to death. And some elected officials are debating a moratorium on executions. Yet, under all debated scenarios, halting executions will put more innocents at risk.”July 2002 - Dudley Sharp
Mark H. Creech, Reverend and Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc, in a Sep. 14, 2004 article for Renew America titled “North Carolina Death Penalty Moratorium: Is it Really about Fairness and Innocence?,” wrote:
“[T]he overwhelming majority of capital cases contain no credible evidence of innocence. In fact, most death row appeals are not even based on claims of factual innocence…
The facts show the vast majority of death row releases are based on legal technicalities, not real innocence!
Moreover, the entire contention about ‘innocence’ rests on the notion there is actually some evidence innocent people are being executed. This is nonsense! There is no such evidence anywhere – not even a single case of an innocent execution!…
We are all aware living murderers injure, maim and kill again, in prison, after improper release, and after escape. Whether one believes in the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent or not is irrelevant, one matter can’t be contested: the murderer who is executed will never kill again.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that in some states where a moratorium was instituted, the murder rate increased. For instance, in Texas, an unofficial moratorium on executions was implemented during most of 1996 and early 1997… [T]he state appeared to have spared few, if any, condemned prisoners, while the citizens of Texas experienced an added loss of 90 innocent lives to homicide, over and above what would have been expected had no moratorium been in place.”Sep. 14, 2004 - Mark H. Creech