STATEMENT ON INTRODUCTION OF THE NATIONAL DEATH PENALTY MORATORIUM ACT OF 2000
Senator Seeks A Moratorium Against Government Killings
Feingold's Full Testimony on S. 2463
April 26, 2000
Mr. FEINGOLD: Mr. President, I rise today to introduce the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2000. This bill would place an immediate pause on executions in the United States while a national, blue ribbon commission reviews the administration of the death penalty. Before one more execution is carried out, jurisdictions that impose the death penalty have an obligation to ensure that the sentence of death will be imposed with justice, fairness, and due process. I am pleased that my distinguished colleague from Michigan, Senator Levin, has joined me as a cosponsor of this important initiative.
Mr. President, if a particular aircraft crashed one out of every eight flights, Congress would act immediately to ground it. But as New York public defender Kevin Doyle says in the book, Actual Innocence, that is about what is happening now with the death penalty in this country. Since the reinstatement of the modern death penalty, 87 people have been freed from death row because they were later proven innocent. That's 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.
Both supporters and opponents of the death penalty should be concerned about the flaws in the system by which we impose sentences of death. More than 3,600 inmates sit on state and federal death rows around the country, while it becomes increasingly clear that innocent people are being put to death.
A 1987 study found that between 1900 and 1985, 350 people convicted of capital crimes in the United States were innocent of the crimes charged. Some escaped execution by minutes. Regrettably, according to researchers Radelet and Bedau, 23 actually had their lives taken from them in error.
In Illinois, since 1973, 13 innocent people have been freed from death row in the same time that 12 were executed. Governor George Ryan, a supporter of the death penalty, has done two things in response: He has effectively imposed a moratorium on executions and established a blue ribbon commission to review the administration of capital punishment in Illinois. Governor Ryan and I are, of course, from different political parties, but we both recognize that the system by which we impose the death penalty is broken.
Modern DNA testing of forensic evidence led to the exoneration of five of the 13 innocents freed from Illinois' death row and eight of the 87 men and women who have been freed from death row nationwide since the 1970's. But, Mr. President, Illinois and New York are the only states that currently provide some measure of access to DNA testing for death row inmates. My distinguished colleague from Vermont, Senator Leahy, has introduced a bill, the Innocence Protection Act, of which I am a co-sponsor, that would ensure access to DNA testing for all inmates on death row in the federal system and the 38 states that impose the death penalty. That bill is an important initiative to help ensure that innocents are not condemned to death row. I hope my colleagues will join Senator Leahy in moving this bill forward.
But, as Governor Ryan and others have recognized, flaws in our system unfortunately go well beyond access to DNA testing. As Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld and Jim Dwyer note in their new book, Actual Innocence,
"Sometimes eyewitnesses make mistakes. Snitches tell lies. Confessions are coerced or fabricated. Racism trumps truth. Lab tests are rigged. Defense lawyers sleep."
Indeed, Scheck and Neufeld note that eyewitness error is the single most important cause of wrongful convictions. As important as DNA testing is, it is only the first step in addressing the host of problems in the administration of capital punishment.
Mr. President, 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 actually 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.
Most insidiously, the ghosts of institutional racism still haunt our courthouses. They intrude when lawyers select jurors, during the presentation of evidence, when the prosecutor contrasts the race of the victim and defendant, and when juries deliberate. The evidence mounts that the United States applies the death penalty differently to people of different races.
The numbers tell the story: Although African-Americans constitute only 13% of the American population, since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, African-Americans account for 35% of those executed, 43% of those who wait on death row nationwide, and 67% of those who wait on death row in the Federal system. Although only 50% of murder victims are white, fully 84% of the victims in death penalty cases were white. Since 1976, America has executed 11 whites for killing an African-American, but has executed 144 African-Americans for killing a white.
Mr. President, Governor Ryan and Illinois serve as a model for the Congress and the Nation. The flaws in the Illinois criminal justice system I am sure are not unique. Problems like convicting the innocent, racial disparities in the application of the death penalty, and inadequacy of defense counsel have plagued the administration of capital punishment across the Nation. That is why we need a national review of the death penalty and a suspension of executions until we can be sure that death row inmates across the country have been given the full protections of justice, fairness, and due process.
And Governor Ryan is certainly not alone in questioning the state of the death penalty. In the last few months, people of all political stripes have been stepping forward to say there's a problem and it's now time to do something about it.
Columnist George Will recently wrote that serious defects exist in the criminal justice system by which we impose capital punishment. In a recent column in The Washington Post, Mr. Will wrote that accounts of the wrongly convicted compel the conclusion that "many innocent people are in prison, and some innocent people have been executed." He also wrote that even though he continues to believe that capital punishment may be a deterrent to crime, it can only be an effective deterrent if the criminal justice system operates properly to convict and sentence those who actually committed the offense, not innocent people.
The Reverend Pat Robertson, a founder of the Christian Coalition and a long-time supporter of the death penalty, has also recognized that something is terribly amiss in the administration of the death penalty. At a recent conference at the College of William and Mary, Reverend Robertson noted that the death penalty has been administered in a way that discriminates against minorities and the poor who cannot afford high-priced defense attorneys. Reverend Robertson said, "these are all reasons to at least slow down." He also said, "I think a moratorium would indeed be very appropriate."
Mr. President, across the country, other state and local legislative bodies have also urged pause and reflection. At least 17 city and county governments have now passed resolutions supporting a moratorium on executions. And resolutions have been offered in the legislatures of several states, including Alabama, Maryland, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Washington state. In 1997, the American Bar Association adopted a resolution calling for a nationwide moratorium on executions. Recently, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and a number of other religious organizations called on the President to suspend the scheduling of executions and initiate a review of the administration of capital punishment at the federal level. These local governments and organizations have recognized that a little time and a little reflection are not too much to ask when the lives of innocent people may hang in the balance.
Congress, too, should recognize that a little time and reflection are not too much to ask. That is why I ask my colleagues to support the bill I introduce today. This bill simply calls on the federal government and all states that impose the death penalty to suspend executions while a national commission reviews the administration of the death penalty. The Commission would study all matters relating to the administration of the death penalty at the federal and state levels to determine whether it comports with constitutional principles and requirements of fairness, justice, equality and due process. Congress would review the Commission's final report and then enact or reject its recommendations. Those jurisdictions that impose capital punishment could resume executions only after Congress considers the Commission's final report and repeals the suspension of executions provision of the bill.
This means that before executing even one more person, the federal government and the states must ensure that not a single innocent person will be executed, eliminate discrimination in capital sentencing on the basis of the race of either the victim or the defendant, and provide for certain basic standards of competency of defense counsel.
Mr. President, questions about the administration of the death penalty can only be answered with an impartial, independent review. The blue ribbon commission called for in my bill would include prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, law enforcement officials and other distinguished Americans with experience or expertise in this issue. It would be a balanced commission -- not chock full of death penalty foes or death penalty supporters but would represent different viewpoints on the issue. Other nations, including some of our closest allies, have also established national commissions to review the death penalty. In the 1950's, Great Britain created the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment and the Canadian Parliament established a joint committee of their Senate and House to review capital punishment. Now, almost 50 years later, I believe it is time for the United States to undertake a national review. We should be the leader on issues of justice.
It's been almost 25 years since the reinstatement of the death penalty and we still don't know how innocent people got on death row and how to prevent it from happening again. That's embarrassing for the world's greatest democracy. My bill is a step in the right direction. And the time is now. Our Nation has come to the point where the machinery of death is well-greased and the pace of executions has accelerated. Last year, our nation hit an all-time high for total executions in any one year since 1976. We had 98 executions last year in America. And this year, we're already on track to meet or exceed that same high rate.
Before our government takes the life of even one more citizen, it has a solemn responsibility to every American to prove that its actions are consistent with our nation's fundamental principles of justice, equality and due process. Before carrying out an irreversible punishment, the government must carefully consider the tough questions surrounding capital punishment.
Mr. President, let us slow the machinery of death to ensure that we are being fair. 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.
Care to send a thank-you note to Senators Feingold and Levin? You can send notes to them from their WWW sites, which are:
http://www.senate.gov/~feingold/ for Feingold
http://www.senate.gov/~levin/ for Levin
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