US Rep. Johnson Bill Would Help Prevent Executing Innocents

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(APN) ATLANTA — A group of federal lawmakers introduced a bill November 03, 2009, that would make it easier for death row inmates to present new, compelling evidence of innocence before a court.

The Effective Death Penalty Appeals Act (HR 3986) would empower federal courts to grant habeas corpus relief for a prisoner on death row who presents newly discovered evidence that demonstrates probable innocence.

Further, it would allow prisoners on death row to file additional federal habeas petitions if they present newly discovered evidence with which a panel of federal judges rules may exonerate the petitioners.

If a federal court were to grant a habeas corpus petition, the case would likely return to its original jurisdiction for retrial.

“We’ve got folks on death row with no opportunity to show compelling new evidence of innocence,” US Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), chief sponsor of HR 3986, said in a statement. “The status quo is inhumane and unconstitutional.”

Co-sponsors of the bill include US Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI), Bob Filner (D-CA), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), John Lewis (D-GA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Robert Scott (D-VA), Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Anthony Weiner (D-NY), and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). The bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the current Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) limits the power of federal judges to grant relief to inmates on death row.

For example, until the Supreme Court of the US ruled that Troy Anthony Davis must receive a new trial, several lower courts cited the AEDPA as limiting their discretion to do so.

The AEDPA places a ban on second or successive habeas petitions. Petitioners who try to bring claims in federal habeas proceedings that have already been decided in an earlier habeas petition would find those claims barred.

“They never intended to bar serious innocence claims from being heard,” Brian Evans, a campaigner with Amnesty International USA’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, said of Congress’s original intent.

Davis, a Georgia death row inmate who has been unable to present his compelling evidence because of current procedural hurdles, would benefit from HR 3986.

A Savannah jury sentenced Davis to death in 1991 for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail.

Since then, seven of nine prosecution witnesses who linked Davis to the murder have either changed or recanted their testimony in sworn affidavits.

The Supreme Court of the US, in a stunning 6-2 decision on August 17, 2009, ordered the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia to “receive testimony and make findings of fact as to whether evidence that could have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.”

“The substantial risk of putting an innocent man to death clearly provides an adequate justification for holding an evidentiary hearing,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority at the time.

 

Johnson notes that even if the District Court finds Davis’s evidence supports his innocence claim, current law would not necessarily give it authority to grant a habeas petition.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the dissent on August 17, called the Court order “a fool’s errand,” and “a confusing exercise.”

“The Court proceeds down this path even though every judicial and executive body that has examined petitioner’s stale claim of innocence has been unpersuaded, and (to make matters worst [sic]) even though it would be impossible for the District Court to grant any relief,” Scalia wrote.

“Transferring this case to a court that has no power to grant relief is strange enough,” he added. “It becomes stranger still when one realizes that the allegedly new evidence we shunt off to be examined by the District Court has already been considered (and rejected) multiple times.”

Stevens argued it “would be an atrocious violation of our Constitution and the principles upon which it is based to execute an innocent person.”

“Imagine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man,” Stevens wrote. “The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless. The Court correctly refuses to endorse such reasoning.”

For an inmate like Cameron Todd Willingham, however, HR 3986 arrives too late. Texas executed Willingham in 2004 for the murder of his three children by arson.

Leading up to his execution, attorneys sent Gov. Rick Perry and the parole board a report from Gerald Hurst, a nationally recognized arson expert that concluded Willingham’s conviction was based on faulty forensic analysis.

The Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA evidence, later obtained documents that show Texas officials received the Hurst report but apparently did not act on it.

The group later hired five of the nation’s leading independent arson experts who reviewed the case and concluded in a 48-page report that “each and every one of the indicators relied upon have since been scientifically proven to be invalid.”

“When a person facing execution has strong evidence of his innocence, he should have ample opportunity to bring those claims back into a court of law,” Laura Moye, director of Amnesty’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, said in a November 04, 2009, statement.

“Given that 139 people have been wrongfully convicted and sent to death row in the last three decades in the United States, it is especially important that lawmakers take a close look at the flaws in a system that irreversibly takes human life,” Moye added. “This would be the best way to ensure that innocent people are not executed.”

About the author:

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

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