NEW VOICES: California Moratorium Bill Gains Broad Support From Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and JudgesPosted: January 13, 2006
A group of 40 law enforcement officers, current and former prosecutors, and judges at the state and federal level have urged California lawmakers to enact a temporary halt to executions in the state while a commission examines the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty.
The U.S. Supreme Court re-instated the death sentence of Ronald Sanders in a 5-4 ruling overturning a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. After Sanders had been sentenced to death in California, the state's supreme court held that two of the aggravating factors used by the jury in its sentencing determination were invalid. The 9th Circuit had held that California is a "weighing state" and hence the use of these invalid aggravating factors rendered the death sentence unconstitutional because the lower court had not found that such use was harmless to the defendant.
Concerned that a fingerprint identification error could lead to the execution of an innocent person, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is examining all cases of state and federal prisoners scheduled for execution to determine whether FBI fingerprint experts made mistakes that led to death sentences. Eighteen months ago, the FBI discovered that a fingerprint examiner for the Bureau had mistakenly matched a print found near the site of terrorist bombings in Madrid to a lawyer in Portland, Oregon. The case embarrassed the FBI and brought to light the potential for internal error. Since then, the FBI has implemented a new policy of reexamining fingerprint evidence in capital cases to ensure the finding’s accuracy before a scheduled execution proceeds. Since the policy was implemented, the FBI has examined at least 92 death penalty cases and found 10 in which it had analyzed fingerprints. In each of the fingerprint cases, the FBI’s original conclusions were confirmed. Bruce Budowle, the FBI’s chief scientist, has responded to recent criticisms of the scientific value of fingerprint analysis by calling for more specific “validation” to improve fingerprint ID techniques.
As California lawmakers consider legislation that would put executions on hold for two years while a 13-member commission reviews the problem of wrongful convictions in the state, a group of current and former prosecutors have sent members of the state Assembly a letter urging passage of the measure. "The execution of an innocent person is unacceptable, and it is imperative that California takes every precaution that it never happens. This is not just a matter of justice for these individuals. It is a matter of public safety…. If an innocent person is convicted, that means that the true perpetrator may well still be free to commit more crimes," the prosecutors wrote.
Among the prosectors signing the letter were Donald Heller, who authored the state's 1978 death penalty statute, and Ira Reiner, whose office sent dozens of people to death row when he was Los Angeles County's district attorney from 1984 to 1992. Imperial County deputy district attorney John Willis, San Francisco County sheriff Michael Hennessy, and former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin also signed the letter.
New Jersey lawmakers have voted to suspend executions in the state while a task force studies the fairness and costs of imposing capital punishment. After passing the Senate in December and the Assembly on January 9 by a vote of 55-21, the measure now goes to Governor Richard Codey for his signature into law. Codey has indicated that he will sign the bill, an act that will make New Jersey the first state to pass a death penalty moratorium into law through legislation.
Virginia Governor Mark Warner has ordered DNA evidence retested to determine whether Roger Keith Coleman, who was executed in 1992, was actually innocent. Warner said he ordered the tests because of technological advances that could prove a level of certainty that was not available at the time of Coleman's execution.
Warner, who will leave office on January 14, noted, "This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution. I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence."
Since his execution, Coleman's case has generated a great deal of national and international attention. After the Virginia Supreme Court denied a request for new DNA testing made in 2002 by four newspapers and Centurian Ministries, a New Jersey-based group that investigates claims of innocence, a number of requests for new DNA tests were directed to Governor Warner. If the testing shows Coleman did not commit the crime for which he was executed, it would be the first time in the United States that a person was exonerated by scientific testing after his execution.
Texas Review Finds "Severe and Pervasive Problems" in DNA Testing, Including Three Death Penalty CasesPosted: January 5, 2006
An ongoing review of DNA tests conducted by the Houston Police Department has revealed "severe and pervasive problems" with the lab's findings in more than two dozen cases, including three death penalty cases. The new report released by independent investigator Michael Bromwich, who is reviewing more than 1,100 Houston Police Department DNA cases analyzed between 1987 and 2002, also linked the DNA lab's troubles to "very disturbing problems" within the Houston Police Department's serology division during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Support for restoration of the death penalty in Great Britain, even when the murder victim is a police officer, has fallen below 50% for the first time since its abolition four decades ago. According to a YouGov poll conducted for The Daily Telegraph, the number of people who oppose capital punishment even when the victim is a police officer has risen to 43%. The figure is a dramatic changed from the 20% who voiced opposition to the death penalty in a 1960 poll conducted by Gallup.
A Virginia judge ruled that prosecutors may not seek the death penalty against a Vietnamese man accused of murdering two people because police violated the man's rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by not informing him that he could contact his country's consulate. "[T]he duty to give notice is absolute. . . . [T]he idea that the state can completely ignore its treaty obligations without consequence essentially obliterates the purpose for which the rights under the Vienna Convention were intended," Judge Alden of Fairfax County wrote in barring the death penalty against Dihn Pham. Pham's trial is scheduled to take place later this month, and he now faces a possible sentence of life without parole.
This is the second Fairfax case in three months to involve legal repercussions for failure to notify a murder suspect of his Vienna Convention rights. In November 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the non-capital case of Honduras native Mario A. Bustillo because he also was not told of his international treaty rights. The Vienna Convention was signed by the United States in 1969 and was created to provide protections for people arrested in another country. (Washington Post, January 4, 2006).
Amidst widespread suspicion that innocent people have been sentenced to death or executed, China has announced that reforming its death penalty system is a priority and it is implementing procedural changes to protect against wrongful convictions. In October 2005, the People's Supreme Court announced that it would reverse a decision from the early 1980's that gave final review on many death penalty cases to provincial high courts. Under the new policy, the People's Supreme Court would reclaim responsibility for reviewing all capital cases.
Some observers predict that the People's Supreme Court will find deep flaws within the current death penalty system and that their review of cases could result in a dramatic 30% decline in executions. Critics of the reforms claim that the changes do not go far enough to restrict the power of police and the courts.
Though the exact number of annual executions in China remains unknown, a high-level delegate to the National People's Congress publicly estimated in 2005 that it was "nearly 10,000." In 2004, Amnesty International documented 3,400 executions in China, but noted that the actual number was probably far higher.