ACLU Applauds Legislation To Protect the Innocent on Death Row

June 20, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded legislation under consideration by a House panel that would address the national problem of innocent people being sentenced to death.

“Countries that routinely provide nothing more than a sham defense for those who face execution are condemned by our government for human rights violations,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “Yet today the only thing standing between many Americans and death row is an inexperienced, incompetent — or even a sleeping — lawyer.

“The ‘Innocence Protection Act’ would help fix this injustice by helping states provide competent legal services at every stage of a death penalty prosecution and providing people with meaningful access to DNA evidence that may help prove their innocence,” Rust-Tierney added.

The bill (HR 4167), which was slated to be examined today by a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, is sponsored by Representatives William Delahunt (D-MA) and Ray LaHood (R-IL) and is similar to legislation pending in the Senate. Both bills have strong bi-partisan support. A Senate bill that focuses solely on the issue of DNA evidence was introduced last week by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT).

The ACLU commended the House panel for going further than the Hatch bill to address the widespread problem of incompetent lawyers. The ACLU noted that a recent Columbia University report cited incompetent legal counsel as a major cause of errors in capital punishment cases. The ACLU also expressed concern that the Hatch bill could place unnecessary burdens to access to DNA testing, saying that many of those who have been proven innocent due to DNA testing not have qualified for testing under its standard.

“Supporters and opponents of the death penalty agree that there are serious problems in America’s system of imposing the death penalty,” Rust-Tierney said. “This bill will help address those problems.”

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