ACLU Renews Call for Death Penalty Moratorium on Eve of International Human Rights Day and Two Scheduled Executions

December 9, 2002 12:00 am

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Statement of Diann Rust-Tierney, Director ACLU Capital Punishment Project


WASHINGTON-The Capital Punishment Project of the American Civil Liberties Union will mark December 10– International Human Rights Day — by renewing our call for a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty and highlighting recent developments in North Carolina and Oklahoma, both of which have scheduled executions for tomorrow.

On a day meant to observe universal human rights, now is the time for all citizens-and particularly the citizens of North Carolina and Oklahoma-to demand that their states stop executing individuals under systems that suffer from significant problems, including inadequate legal representation, racially biased juries and, in Oklahoma, one of the worst false evidence scandals in recent memory.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948. In its preamble the document states that the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world stems from the recognition of the inherent dignity and equal, inalienable rights of all members of the human family.

Unfortunately many state jurisdictions in the United States disregard this tenet of justice as it relates to death row inmates and continue to apply the death penalty even as serious concerns about fairness in its application abound.

In Oklahoma, 75 percent of capital cases reviewed by a 2000 Columbia Law School study had serious errors. The same study determined that the state courts overturned capital convictions or changed sentences on appeal more than 50 percent of the time.

Oklahoma capital crime defendants continue to find themselves at the mercy of a seriously flawed death penalty system. Many have been victims of false or misleading testimony given by disgraced former Oklahoma City Forensic Chemist Joyce Gilchrist. One out of every two Oklahoma capital defendants on trial can expect to receive inadequate legal defense, have evidence missed or withheld, or expect his or her jury to receive poor instruction.

Despite these well-founded concerns, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating plans to complete his term by presiding over four executions between now and the end of the year, including the execution of Jerry McCracken tomorrow. The general application of Oklahoma’s death penalty raises alarming questions about the overall integrity of the state’s justice system. To continue to execute men and women in the face of a system that is so fundamentally flawed is unfair and a violation of both the civil rights and human rights that our nation holds dear.

The ACLU is hopeful that Brad Henry, Oklahoma’s Governor-elect, will give serious consideration to instituting a moratorium on the state’s death penalty in order to adequately assess the problems of the state’s system.

In North Carolina, recent revelations from a juror in the Desmond Keith Carter case point out the existence of racial bias in the state’s death penalty system. Carter, who is black, is scheduled to be executed tomorrow for the murder of a white woman. A black juror in Carter’s trial has said that he felt pressured by the white jury foreman to vote for the death penalty.

Last year, a University of North Carolina study found individuals who kill a white person in the state are 3.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty. Those odds increase even more when a person of color kills a white person. The pervasive bias inherent in the application of the death penalty shows the greater value placed on white lives.

Although whites make up only 40 percent of murder victims in North Carolina, persons who have been executed in the state have been convicted in cases where 90 percent of the murder victims were white. Further, evidence exists to suggest a pervasiveness of racial biases in other state jurisdictions. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a Texas case in which a black defendant alleged that the jury selection process in his capital trial was tainted by racial bias.

North Carolina’s Supreme Court Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake has taken a courageous step in the right direction by empanelling a commission to explore the issue of innocence among prisoners on the state’s death row. It is now time for Governor Easely to declare a moratorium on all executions. Neither North Carolina nor any other state should continue to put people to death in the face of evidence that the race of the victim or the defendant plays a part in determining who should receive the death penalty.

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