New Voices

NEW VOICES: New Iraqi President Says Death Penalty is a Problem

The new president of Iraq, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani (pictured), recently voiced his concerns about the death penalty, even for those accused of war crimes like Saddam Hussein. "I am among the lawyers who signed an international petition against the death penalty in the world and it would be [a] problem for me if Iraqi courts issued death sentences," Talabini said when asked about the fate of Hussein, who is in U.S. custody in Iraq awaiting trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Kurds were among the communities who suffered the most under the dictatorship of Saddam.  Under current law, the former Iraqi leader could face the death penalty. 

RELIGIOUS VIEWS: Pope John Paul II's Statements on the Death Penalty

During his 26 years as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the late Pope John Paul II frequently called for an end to the death penalty. Among his statements on this issue were the following:

"May the death penalty, an unworthy punishment still used in some countries, be abolished throughout the world." (Prayer at the Papal Mass at Regina Coeli Prison in Rome, July 9, 2000).

NEW VOICES: Victims Testify About the Death Penalty

Recently, various victims and relatives of victims have testified before state legislatures concerning the death penalty.  In Connecticut, a woman who had been attacked by convicted murderer Michael Ross, testified that she nevertheless opposes his execution.  And in North Carolina, the sister of a man who was murdered in 2003 urged state legislators to reconsider the death penalty.

NEW VOICES: U.S. Senator Santorum Rethinking Death Penalty Views

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, an outspoken conservative Catholic from Pennsylvania, is re-examining his views on capital punishment.  In response to the announcement by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops concerning their new Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, Santorum said, "I felt very troubled about cases where someone may have been convicted wrongly. DNA evidence definitely should be used when possible. I agree with the pope that in the civilized world ... the application of the death penalty should be limited. I would definitely agree with that. I would certainly suggest there probably should be some further limits on what we use it for." This is a significant shift in opinion on the death penalty for Santorum, who voted against replacing capital punishment with life without parole in 1994 and helped to block a 1996 effort to make it easier for those on death row to appeal their convictions. He said, "I never thought about it that much when I was really a supporter of the death penalty. I still see it as potentially valuable, but I would be one to urge more caution than I would have in the past." Santorum's remarks came as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a Zogby International poll showing a dramatic decline in Catholic support for capital punishment.

Texas Governor Appoints Special Committee with Broad Powers to Review Criminal Justice Issues

In an historic move to ensure that Texas fairly applies the death penalty and that defendants are afforded proper legal protections to prove their innocence, Texas Governor Rick Perry appointed a nine-member special council with sweeping powers to review an array of legal issues ranging from police investigations to court appeals. The appointment of the panel is the first acton of its kind by a Texas governor in decades.

"I have great confidence in our justice system, but no system is perfect, and we must not be afraid of asking the questions that will lead to creating a more perfect system of justice for all the people of Texas," Gov. Perry said after issuing the Executive Order to create the panel. He noted that among the factors leading to the panel's creation were evidence testing mistakes at the Houston crime lab that affected thousands of criminal cases, court rulings barring the execution of juvenile offenders and those with mental retardation, and questions about whether Texas is properly affording full legal rights to foreign citizens imprisoned in the state.

Former FBI Chief and Former Federal Judges Ask Supreme Court to Review Ohio Capital Case

Former FBI Chief and federal judge William Sessions recently joined two other former federal judges and a prosecutor urging the U.S. Supreme Court to consider an appeal from Ohio death row inmate John Spirko. In their brief, Sessions and his colleagues assert that the prosecution argued a theory at Spirko's trial that it had to know was at least partly suspect. "When the ultimate penalty is at issue, justice demands scrupulous conduct from prosecutors. It is not enough for a prosecutor to weigh all of the evidence, determine that a defendant is guilty, and pursue such a verdict vigorously if he holds back information unfavorable to his desired outcome," reads the group's brief.

Ohio originally charged Spirko and a co-defendant with the murder of postal worker in 1982. Evidence has since surfaced indicating that the state had photos showing that the co-defendant was 500 miles away at the time of the murder. Spirko maintains that those photos should have been turned over to the defense. The co-defendant was never tried for the murder and the state eventually dropped charges against him.

William Sessions is a member of the Constitution Project's Death Penalty Initiative, which helped organize the writing and submission of the brief on behalf of Spirko. 

NEW VOICES: Hearings in New York Help Shift Stance of Judiciary Committee's Leader

The Chair of the Judiciary Committee of the New York Assembly recently voiced her strong concerns about the state's death penalty.  Although she supported capital punishment earlier, Assemblywoman Helene E. Weinstein spoke about the evolution in her thinking and her particular concerns about the risk of executing the innocent: "It was an evolutionary process. But clearly the advent of DNA evidence and the dramatic number of individuals who have been exonerated and freed from death row in states around the country was something that was building in my mind....

NEW VOICES: Former New York Prison Superintendent Talks About the Emotional Costs of Capital Punishment

Retired New York prison superintendent Stephen Dalsheim recently cautioned legislators about re-instating the death penalty, noting his concerns about innocence and the toll executions take on prison employees. "You know, as I grow older, I realize maybe we can get beyond vengeance," Dalsheim said. "The death penalty is fraught with the possibility