NEW VOICES: A Veteran's Perspective on the Death Penalty

Bob Van Steenburg (pictured), served for 27 years in the military and retired as a United States Army Colonel in 1991.  He currently serves as the President of the Board of Directors of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.  On Veterans Day, he reflected on how his opposition to the death penalty grew from his commitments as a soldier.  He wrote, “A soldier stands for more than just him or herself.  A soldier stands for the nation and its citizens.  A soldier gives of his or her life to others, and some do that to the fullest extent.  A soldier’s life is about others. . . . We Americans are better people than what we demonstrate by our use of capital punishment. We proudly state that our nation was founded on the concepts of life and liberty. Congress has passed and the American people have approved amendments to our Constitution to protect the lives of our citizens. The death penalty stands in direct opposition to these concepts.” He concluded, “My service as a soldier was to protect and defend the nation. My work to end capital punishment is to protect and defend the ideals established with our nation’s founding.”  Read full text below.

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High Percentage of U.S. Military Death Sentences Overturned

Of the 16 death sentences that have been imposed since the U.S. military made significant changes to its death penalty system in 1984, 10 have been overturned and all the defendants were resentenced to life.  There have been no executions, and the 6 remaining cases are still under appeal.  Military appellate courts overturned the sentences because of mistakes made at many levels of the military's judicial system, including inadequate defense representation, prosecutorial misconduct, and improper jury instructions.  Some observers attribute these widespread errors to an outdated system that has not enacted institutional changes to match current death penalty representation standards in civilian courts. Young, inexperienced lawyers are regularly assigned to represent capital defendants.  David Bruck, a veteran defense lawyer and director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse, said, "If you have a system where . . . where the lawyers are always trying their first capital case, you're going to guarantee the same kinds of mistakes . . . are going to be made over and over again."  A 2009 law requires the military to appoint qualified attorneys for terrorism suspects, but no such requirement exists for average service members who face criminal charges.  Military officials interpret its 80% death sentence reversal rate not as an indicator of the need for reform but as a natural part of the natural appeals process.

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STUDIES: Significant Racial Disparities Found in Military Death Penalty

A soon-to-be-published study has found significant racial disparities in the U.S. military's death penalty. The study, which will be published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, found that minorities in the military are twice as likely to be sentenced to death as whites accused of similar crimes. The study examined all 105 potential capital cases since the military death penalty was reinstated in 1984.  Of the 16 death sentences handed down in that time, 10 were of minority defendants. The authors did not attribute the disparities to intentional bias: "There is no suggestion here that any participant in the military criminal justice system consciously and knowingly discriminated on the basis of the race of the accused or the victim," the authors said. "However, there is substantial evidence that many actors in the American criminal justice system are unconsciously influenced by the race of defendants and their victims." A New York Times editorial about the study noted how rarely death sentences are handed down in the military, that there have been no military executions since 1961, and that 8 out of 10 death sentences have been overturned. Six men are currently on the U.S. military's death row. The editorial concluded, "The de facto moratorium has not made the country or the military less secure. The evidence of persistent racial bias is further evidence that it is time for the military system to abolish the death penalty."

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DPIC RESOURCE: The Military Death Penalty

The capital arraignment on July 20 of Army Major Nidal Hasan for the murder of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009 has brought attention to the death penalty in the United States Military. There are currently six inmates on the military death row, which is located in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In the last two years, four men have been removed from the military death row after their sentences were reduced to life. The Uniform Code of Military Justice allows the death penalty for 15 offenses, but all current inmates were convicted of premeditated murder or felony murder. Unlike state executions, members of the military cannot be executed unless the President personally confirms the death sentence. A military jury in a capital case must be unanimous in both its verdict and the sentence.  The last military execution took place 50 years ago, on April 13, 1961. U.S. Army Private John A. Bennett was hanged after being convicted of rape and attempted murder. 

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