(IPS) Death Penalty Opponents Fight Fast-Track Efforts

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This article first appeared on the Inter-Press Service website at: http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=41136

ATLANTA, Georgia, Feb 10 (IPS) – Activists in the U.S. southern state of Georgia are fighting to defend and advance the rights of those who could face capital punishment trials, looking ahead to the days when the current country-wide moratorium on lethal injections will be lifted.

Since late September 2007, all executions in the U.S. have been on hold while the Supreme Court hears legal challenges to lethal injection, the country’s main form of execution.

Supreme Court justices are not expected to declare lethal injection unconstitutional when they rule in several months. But they are likely to set standards for evaluating the evidence if mistakes are made during executions, according to the New York Times.

While executions are on the decline throughout most of the U.S., the practice still remains prevalent in the south. Southern states accounted for 86 percent of the 42 executions carried out in the country in 2007, with 26 in Texas alone.

Georgia is currently considering House Bill 185 that would fast-track the capital punishment process. Activists, lawyers and some state lawmakers are focusing their efforts on blocking this bill, which would allow juries to hand down death penalty verdicts with only a majority vote.

House Bill 185 passed the Georgia House of Representatives by 106 votes to 65 last year. It is now stalled in a Senate committee.

Opponents warn that the bill could come before the Georgia General Assembly again this session.

“It is deeply troubling,” Sara Totonchi of the Southern Centre for Human Rights (SCHR) told IPS. “As the rest of the country wants to be more cautious and is using the death penalty less and less, Georgia is taking a step backward. This flies in the face of the national trend.”

The SCHR is campaigning against the bill together with the Georgia Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers (GACDL).

“No other state has a system for non-unanimous verdicts in death [penalty] cases,” a joint statement from the two groups says.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gregg v. Georgia (1976) that the death penalty procedures used in Georgia were constitutional. These included the requirement of a unanimous jury verdict.

The SCHR and GACDL argue that if House Bill 185 becomes law, it might not be constitutional.

One Georgia lawmaker opposed to the bill is Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, a Democrat from Decatur, Georgia. “It’s a serious concern,” she told IPS. “It’s embarrassing when the rest of the nation is imposing a moratorium.”

The SCHR and GACDL, which also oppose a similar bill that would allow majority jury convictions in felony cases, argue that recent exonerations through the use of DNA are a warning that judicial mistakes do occur.

“Because the system is not foolproof, we need to be more cautious about imposing death sentences — not make it easier,” they argue. “A unanimous jury helps safeguard against the inherent problems in the legal system.

“To eliminate the requirement of unanimity shows a total disrespect for jurors struggling to make perhaps one of the most critical decisions of their lives,” they add.

Georgia is one of several states that have recently made huge compensation payments for people wrongly convicted. Last year, the state paid out 1.2 million dollars to Robert Clark, a man wrongly convicted of rape in 1982. He was vindicated by DNA evidence.

Since 1973, 127 inmates have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre. In 2001, the Centre on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School analysed the cases of 86 of those exonerated and released from death row. It found eyewitness error played a role in 45 of the cases.

In a separate effort to strengthen the rights of those risking capital convictions, Benfield introduced legislation in the Georgia General Assembly this session that would require all Georgia law enforcement agencies to follow strict written procedures for witnesses identifying suspects in police line-ups.

The reforms would include the rule that the officer administering a line-up should not know the identity of the suspect. The office should also not be informed whether the suspect is actually in the identification parade.

In addition, there should be only one suspect in each line-up. Witnesses should not be told whether the suspect has been placed in that particular line-up.

Proponents of the bill argue that it would make it impossible for the officer in charge to give verbal or non-verbal cues that could steer a witness towards identifying a certain person.

In one of the largest compensation awards involving miscarriages of justice, a federal jury awarded Alejandro Dominguez nine million dollars in 2006 after deciding that the police had pushed the rape victim to identify Dominguez, even though he did not match the description of the attacker.

Benfield chaired a special committee last year that met with experts on eyewitness identification as well as police and prosecutors.

While law enforcement officials and prosecutors initially expressed serious concerns about Benfield’s proposals, all parties eventually agreed on legislation acceptable to all.

“We have made incredible headway with this study committee,” Benfield told IPS. “Law enforcement really wants to do the right thing. They don’t want the wrong person sitting in jail while the right person is out there committing crimes.”

The proposed legislation calls on the police to begin training its officers and developing guidelines and procedures for conducting identification line-ups this year. By mid-2011, everything could be in place and the training completed.

The Georgia House of Representatives Non-Civil Judiciary Committee passed Benfield’s legislation on Feb. 6, 2008. The legislation could come before the House for a vote later this month.

Georgia’s efforts to make it less likely that innocent people will be executed come at a time when there is an assault on capital punishment elsewhere in the U.S.

Several states narrowly failed to abolish the death penalty in 2007. Legislatures in Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, Maryland and New Mexico all narrowly defeated measures that would have abolished the death penalty.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled on Feb. 8, 2008 that the use of the electric chair violates the state’s constitution. Nebraska was the last state to use the electric chair as its sole method of execution.

There are now 14 out of the 50 U.S. states that no longer practice the death penalty. Other states like California, North Carolina and Tennessee still impose the death penalty but have formed state commissions to study it.

(END/2008)

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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