Georgia Wrestles with Death-Penalty Issues
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The American Bar Association is reviewing death penalty laws and practices in 16 states, the majority of them in the South. The assessments examine a number of issues: the appeals process, the use of DNA evidence, and how the death penalty affects minorities and the mentally ill. The ABA's first state review, released in Georgia, points out a number of problems in the system, but some suggest the evaluation is not impartial.
From Atlanta, NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR reporting:
Back in 1997, the Bar Association passed a resolution that said states should have a moratorium on executions so they could study how the death penalty is being carried out. Now come reviews of specific states, according to Duke Law professor Jim Coleman, who chairs the ABA's death penalty project.
Professor JIM COLEMAN (Law, Duke University): What we're trying to do is to focus attention on how the system actually works. We believe that if we do that, the public will understand the danger inherent in the current system. The danger that at some point we're going to execute an innocent person; and I don't think the public wants that to happen.
LOHR: The ABA found experts to analyze the death penalty and report back. Anne Emanuel, with Georgia State University, chaired the state's assessment team.
Dean ANNE EMANUEL (Associate Dean and Professor Law, Georgia State University): Georgia has implemented a capital defender's indigent defense program, but we remained very concerned by the fact that it appears that it's going to prove to be underfunded.
Already almost as many cases are proceeding as death penalty cases as their budget contemplates handling, so we're very concerned. If there are not adequate resources to put enough attorneys in the field, we won't get the job done.
LOHR: Among the problems identified, another funding issue. Georgia is one of two states that does not provide attorneys to indigent defendants in the second round of appeals.
The report also suggests there are racial and geographic disparities among those who receive the death penalty, and Georgia is the only state that requires mentally retarded defendants to prove their mental state beyond a reasonable doubt. Emanuel believes that heavy burden of proof is a mistake.
Dean EMANUEL: You see the sadness of the cases. The defendant, the night before his execution, who is served his last meal and doesn't finish desert and says, But save it for me, I'll eat it tomorrow, not as a joke, but seriously, because his mental retardation affected his ability to realize that for him there was no tomorrow.
LOHR: Georgia's review team said the state should put a moratorium on death penalty prosecutions and executions, because the system is too flawed. All but one member of the team agreed.
Some see that decision as a political move. Ken Scheidegger is with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a national group that supports the death penalty.
Mr. KEN SCHEIDEGGER (Legal director, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation): The ABA is in fact opposed to the death penalty, even though they pretended not to be. And they are doing reports like this to bolster their political position.
LOHR: Scheidegger says there's no reason to adopt a moratorium to hold up all death penalty cases for a specific problem in a single case.
Danny Porter, District Attorney in Gwinnett County, Georgia, agrees. He's tried about a dozen death penalty cases.
Mr. DANNY PORTER: (District Attorney, Gwinnett County, Georgia): I've got five people on Death Row right now. Not a single case has been overturned. I mean, the vast majority of the time the system works as it is designed to do. Evidence is presented, juries make findings, and guilty people are punished.
LOHR: While the ABA worries there is a real danger that an innocent person could be executed under the present state systems, Porter says there's no evidence that could happen.
Mr. PORTER: They haven't been able to produce a single instance of a person who was factually innocent and yet executed. There's not, there hasn't been a single case where a person has been wrongfully executed.
All those cases where a person supposedly was wrongfully convicted have been caught before the execution date, which to me says the system works.
LOHR: But according to the ABA committee, in the past decade in Georgia, while 19 people on Death Row were executed, in another 22 cases, either the conviction, the sentence, or both, were set aside; a rate they say is way too high.
In the next several weeks, reports on the death penalty are expected to be released in Alabama, Florida, and Arizona.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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