ACLU Urges Committee to Broaden Examination of Death Penalty

June 13, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded a Senate committee for examining the unfair practice of denying death row prisoners access to DNA evidence that may help prove their innocence, yet cautioned that the problem is broader and includes incompetent lawyers who do little to protect their clients from the death penalty and prosecutorial misconduct.

“We must not send another person to the grave without allowing a simple test that could once and for all resolve any questions of whether they committed a crime,” said Diann Rust-Tierney, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “But allowing DNA evidence is only one piece of the puzzle. Inexperienced, incompetent — or even sleeping — lawyers are often the only thing standing between many Americans and death row.”

As the Senate Judiciary Committee convened hearings today on access to DNA evidence, the ACLU urged the Committee to broaden its scope and consider the entire Innocence Protection Act (S. 2073), a bi-partisan bill that would not only ensure that death row inmates have access to DNA testing but would also help states provide competent legal services at every stage of a death penalty prosecution.

“Senator Leahy’s ‘Innocence Protection Act’ would help fix this injustice by helping states provide competent legal services at every stage of a death penalty prosecution,” Rust-Tierney added.

The ACLU said that there are two common traits among people who have been released from Illinois’ death row, where the number of people proven innocent exceeded the number the state executed. All of the former condemned either had access to crucial DNA evidence that exonerated them or the shoddy defense they initially received was augmented by volunteers who performed thorough investigative work that turned up evidence of their innocence.

A report released yesterday by Columbia University researchers found that two out of three death penalty convictions were overturned on appeal, mostly because of incompetent defense lawyers, overzealous police officers and prosecutors who withheld evidence.

Most death row inmates are not currently allowed to use DNA evidence to prove their innocence, or may only do so based on shifting political winds and the whims of their state’s governor.

“Although the ACLU believes that the death penalty is wrong under any circumstances, we strongly agree with death penalty supporters who think that innocent prisoners must have the chance to exonerate themselves,” Rust-Tierney said.

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