“If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed…Serious questions are being raised about whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in this country. Perhaps it’s time to look at minimum standards for appointed counsel in death cases and adequate compensation for appointed counsel when they are used.” -U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in a speech given to the Minnesota Women Lawyers Group on July 7, 2001.
Who decides who should be punished by death in this country? Who determines the value of one life compared to another? Who takes responsibility when an innocent person is put to death for being found guilty of a crime that he did not commit? How is the death penalty decided to be the right punishment for the crime? Who decides if execution is fair or if it is not? When is murder justified?
I am not questioning the morality of the death penalty itself. I am addressing the issue of the unfortunate fact that it seems no one has taken the time to devise a solid framework of laws to regulate executions, to oversee that these executions are being distributed fairly and to prove without a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of the crime in question. This also raises questions of fairness in the decision to put a convict to death. Do laws take into consideration the quality of legal representation for persons accused of murder? What about economic and racial biases?
The guidelines to determine the worth of someone’s life are vague, unclear, and vary from state to state. The state government is responsible for carrying out capital punishment. If the death penalty is allowed, the state must decide if the accused will be put to death and by what method of execution will be used. There are Federal laws that outline capital punishment. These laws are based on the United States Constitution, American and English Law, precedents and orders of the President. The states are required to make their laws based on these guidelines.
Former Illinois Governor George Ryan took a strong stand against the unfairness of capital punishment in the United States. Before leaving office, he cleared Illinois’ death row. The 167 inmates that comprised death row had their sentences changed to life in prison without parole. Ryan questioned the fairness of capital punishment laws. “I had to act,” he stated. “Our capital system is haunted by the demon of error – error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.” Ryan also pardoned four men who were on death row for murders that were allegedly tortured out of them by police. Three years prior to clearing death row, Governor Ryan had found that thirteen Illinois inmates were wrongly convicted, and he took action to halt executions. “I am not prepared to take the risk that we may execute an innocent person,” Ryan said.
Poor legal representation has been a major issue in capital punishment reform. Accused people who cannot afford an attorney are often counseled by inexperienced, underpaid, under qualified court-appointed attorneys. Based on the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution that guarantees legal representation, a person accused of a felony or misdemeanor, whether on the state or federal level, and whose punishment carries a possible prison sentence, has a right to counsel. According to statistics from the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 69% of Caucasian state prison inmates had court-appointed attorneys, compared to 77% of African-American inmates, and 73% of Hispanic inmates.
According to Reverend Joseph Lowery, eight out of every ten convicts executed in the southern United States are minorities, pointing out that in his home state of Georgia, African-Americans make up fifteen percent of the state’s population and fifty percent of the death row population. Lowery, a civil rights activist and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says that poor citizens are “vigorously prosecuted and poorly defended…Capital punishment is for people who have no capital.”
Gary Nelson was sentenced to death in Georgia. Represented by an attorney who had never tried a death penalty case in his life and who was rejected co-counsel by the court, Nelson was convicted and sentenced to die. An Atlanta based law firm took on the case and had the verdict overturned in 1991. Nelson had spent eleven years on death row for a crime that he did not commit.
Jack House, also of Georgia, was accused of murder. His court-appointed legal representation came from a husband and wife team who were ignorant of the state’s death penalty statute, “too busy” to gather elements for an effective defense, and overall oblivious to the fact that someone’s life was at stake. After being sentenced to death, he fought with appeals and was finally exonerated in 1984.
In 1989, Judy Haney was accused of killing her husband. Her defense was based on the fact that Haney’s husband had abused and cheated on her. Her lawyer, who was appointed by the court, failed to present evidence of this alleged abuse and was held in contempt and sent to jail for being drunk during the trial! Haney was found guilty and sentenced to death. Her 1992 appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court was denied.
Capital punishment in the United States is in need of serious reform. The examples brought forth are just the tip of the iceberg. Our lawmakers must probe this issue. American citizens should not have to live in fear that they will be executed for a crime that someone else committed. The biggest mistake this nation made when reinstating the death penalty was not taking the time to map it out and lay a solid foundation for it. Because of this oversight, many innocent people have paid the price with their lives.
Gottfried, Ted. Capital Punishment: The Death Penalty Debate. Springfield, NJ: Enslow
Publishers, Inc., 1997.
“Illinois Governor Commutes Sentences of 167 inmates.” 11 March 2003
“Indigent Defense Statistics.” 8 April 2003 http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/id.htm.
Purdue, Joretta . “United Methodist News Service.” 8 April 2003
“The Lack of Competent Legal Counsel.” 11 March 2003