Gov. Parris N. Glendening took a courageous step when he put a moratorium on executions in Maryland, as Gov. George Ryan did in Illinois in 2000.
Mr. Glendening’s action signals mounting concern about flaws in our death penalty system: the 101st death row inmate has now been exonerated; a Columbia University study has found that from 1973 to 1995, more than two-thirds of death penalty convictions were reversed on appeal based on serious, reversible error; and late last month in New York, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff announced that he was seriously considering finding the federal death penalty unconstitutional because so many death row inmates have been found innocent.
The message is clear: In response to the glaring flaws in the administration of capital punishment, the nation should conduct a thorough, nationwide review of the death penalty.
No executions should go forward while an independent, blue-ribbon commission examines the federal and state systems of capital punishment – systems so riddled with errors that for every eight people executed in the modern death penalty era, one person on death row has been found innocent. No one would buy a particular car if the brakes failed in one car for every eight cars that came off the lot, and we should never accept that level of error when people’s lives hang in the balance.
The commission appointed by Governor Ryan has taken a hard look at that state’s death penalty system, which has freed more men from its death row than it has executed since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977. Yet no thorough study of the federal death penalty, or of the death penalty in 37 other states, has been conducted since the Supreme Court first declared capital punishment unconstitutional in the United States in 1972.
Just last week, the 101st exoneration in the United States took place in Pennsylvania, where Thomas Kimbell Jr. spent four years on Pennsylvania’s death row for murders he did not commit. With 101 death row inmates nationwide found innocent – some just days before their execution date – the nation should follow Illinois’ lead by placing a moratorium on executions and conducting a thorough examination of the administration of capital punishment.
After the 13th innocent man was freed from Illinois’ death row more than two years ago, Governor Ryan placed a moratorium on the state’s death penalty and brought together an esteemed panel of prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and other citizens from both sides of the issue.
That commission concluded that while no system can guarantee that capital punishment won’t take an innocent life in Illinois, the state can institute reforms in its criminal justice system to guard against such a terrible injustice.
The recommendations made by the Illinois commission address the root problems that have resulted in the wrongful conviction of innocent people.
For instance, the commission recommends that the death penalty be barred in certain situations in which a conviction hinges solely on evidence that is inherently less reliable, such as the testimony of a single witness, a jailhouse informant or “snitch,” or an uncorroborated accomplice.
The commission also recommends the videotaping of questioning of capital suspects at a police facility to reduce the risk of possible coerced confessions.
The problem of incompetent defense counsel can be addressed by improving the training of lawyers in death penalty cases, the commission writes.
While Illinois, and now Maryland, work to reform their death penalty systems, many other states have done little or nothing to review their own systems of capital punishment, even though their rates for error in capital cases may be significant.
Three-fourths of the states that have conducted executions since 1976 have released at least one innocent person from death row; 22 innocent people have been released from Florida’s death row alone in the modern death penalty era.
A national commission should study whether and how these kinds of serious errors can be avoided in other death penalty states and at the federal level.
We support legislation in the Senate to create such a commission, and to put a moratorium on executions while the commission evaluates whether the operation of the death penalty machinery today is consistent with constitutional principles of fairness, justice, equality and due process.
The harrowing stories of innocent people narrowly averting execution, and the courageous steps by the Maryland and Illinois governors, offer compelling evidence that a national commission and moratorium should go forward.
Russ Feingold is a Democratic senator from Wisconsin and Jon Corzine is a Democratic senator from New Jersey. They are co-sponsors of the proposed National Death Penalty Moratorium Act.