Senator Kennedy Raises Concerns About Expansion of Federal Death Penalty

In response to an amendment to the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act that would add the death penalty as a punishment for certain offenses under the Act, Senator Edward Kennedy (MA) entered a statement into the Congressional Record highlighting some of the risks of the death penalty.  An excerpt of his statement appears below:

Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, Senator SESSIONS has introduced an amendment that would create two new death penalty eligible offenses for crimes under the Matthew Shepard Act. I stand firmly in opposition to any new legislation that would radically expand the use of the death penalty, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to oppose the Sessions amendment because it adds another new death penalty to the Federal Criminal Code. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1970s, the Death Penalty Information Center has reported that 135 people have been released from death row in the United States because of innocence—approximately one exoneration for every nine executions.

Some have attempted to argue that the
large number of death row exonerations
demonstrates that the system is
working. Yet in many cases, fatal mistakes
were avoided only because of discoveries
made by students or journalists,
not the courts.
In the last 6 months, there have already
been five exonerations in death
penalty cases in four different States.
Ronald Kitchen was freed from prison
in Illinois after the State dismissed all
charges against him on July 7. He had
spent 13 years on death row and a total
of 21 years in prison. Herman Lindsey
was freed from Florida’s death row on
July 9 after the State supreme court
unanimously ruled for his acquittal
from a 2006 conviction. As the court
said:
[T]he State failed to produce any evidence
in this case placing Lindsey at the scene of
the crime at the time of the murder. . . . Indeed,
we find that the evidence here is equally
consistent with a reasonable hypothesis of
innocence.
There have also been three other exonerations
of death row prisoners, including
Nathson Fields in Illinois, Paul
House in Tennessee, and Daniel Moore
in Alabama.
This high number of exonerations has
led many observers, both liberal and
conservative, to express concern about

the fairness of the death penalty’s administration.
As former Supreme Court
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has stated
‘‘if statistics are any indication, the
system may well be allowing some innocent
defendants to be executed.’’
How can we continue to expand a system
that likely leads to the execution
of innocent defendants?
The U.S. Government should not be
in the business of taking the lives of
innocent Americans. Supreme Court
Justice Arthur Goldberg once said that
the deliberate institutionalized taking
of human life by the state is the greatest
degradation of the human personality
imaginable. We must not expand
this flawed system by accepting Senator
SESSIONS’ broad amendment.

(Congressional Record, Senate, at S7683-84, July 20, 2009) (statement of Senator Kennedy). See Innocence and Recent Legislation.