Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Stephen Romei: Death knell sounds for US capital law

GEORGE RYAN, outgoing governor of the US state of Illinois a republican who leaves office today, has put US capital punishment on the road to oblivion by commuting the sentences of all 167 of the state's death row inmates. Three were re-sentenced to 40 years' jail and the remaining 164 got life without parole.

Before we get into why Ryan is right, it's worth noting that the 164, who between them killed 250 people, may have escaped the lethal needle but will still die in prison.

Ryan was pro-death penalty when he took office in 1999 (and his wife, who knew one of the victims, opposes his decision). The vital statistic that prompted his historic rethink was 13-12. That was the number of Illinois death row inmates exonerated due to evidence of their innocence compared with the number executed since 1976, when the US Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment.

Overall, 102 people have been freed from US death rows in that time and 820 have been executed by lethal injection (657), electric chair (147), gas chamber (11), hanging (3) and firing squad (2).

DNA testing has been a key factor in righting wrongs committed by a broken and biased system.

As former US Supreme Court judge William Brennan Jr said in 1994: "Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent."

Almost a decade later, there are more than 3500 inmates awaiting execution in 38 US states (12 have abolished capital punishment), according to the Washington, DC-based Death Penalty Information Centre. The big three death penalty states California and the Bush axis of Texas and Florida house almost one-third of the condemned.

Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in January 2000 because he feared the system was "haunted by the demon of error". That demon dwells in statistics that underpin the crucial 13-12 equation in Illinois.

To start with race, 80 per cent of capital cases involve white victims, who make up only 50 per cent of homicide deaths. Since 1976, the number of executions involving a white defendant and black victim is 12. Reverse the colours and the number is 176. In the 38 death penalty states, the white-black split in the ranks of district attorneys the prosecutors who decide whether to seek death is 1796 to 22. Thirty-six of the inmates Ryan spared were blacks condemned by all-white juries.

Almost one-third of the Illinois death row inmates were convicted on the word of prison snitches, which is common practice. (Ryan also pardoned four men who had their confessions beaten out of them by police.) And here's one more number: 16. In 17 US states, that is the age (at time of offence) at which the death penalty cuts in.

DISHONEST prosecutions and incompetent defences entrench another lethal imbalance. We've all read about the defence counsel who slept through a capital case (he lost), but less about widespread inequities such as the fact 95 per cent of death row inmates cannot afford a lawyer.

Lawyer and novelist Scott Turow, a member of a committee Ryan established to examine the death penalty, recalls the case of Alejandro Hernandez, sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of a 10-year-old girl. Prosecutors relied heavily on a size six shoe print Hernandez's fit at the scene. What they didn't tell anyone, especially the jury, was that the shoe print was a woman's size six. Hernandez was exonerated only after the real killer confessed.

Writing in The New Yorker, Turow says his work on the committee converted him into an opponent of the death penalty. He also points out as have many others that there is no evidence to back the belief that executions deter others from murder.

The Los Angeles Times reports Ryan's decision has drawn "worldwide praise and stern local condemnation", a response that highlights the US's global isolation on capital punishment. Shocked by the unfairness of the system, Ryan asked: "How in God's name does that happen? In America, how does it happen?" In fact, it's only in America, when it comes to Western democracies.

By Stephen Romei 14 January 03


Amnesty urges Bush to shut death row
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged US President George W. Bush to take a "moral stand" and abolish the death penalty after the Illinois Governor dramatically emptied that state's death row.