UPDATE: Quinones and his co-defendant were sentenced to life imprisonment. (New York Times, Jan. 2, 2005)

On December 10, 2002, relying on earlier Supreme Court precedents, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a decision by the District Court in United States v. Quinones that held the federal death penalty to be unconstitutional because it posed a substantial risk of executing innocent defendants. Despite the developments in DNA testing and the many exonerations that have resulted from this science, the Circuit Court relied on cases decided prior to the DNA-era to allow this capital prosecution to go forward. In concluding, the Court said: “In sum, if the well-settled law on this issue is to change, that is a change that only the Supreme Court is authorized to make.” (United States v. Quinones, 313 F.3d 49 (2d Cir. 2002)). In addition to the possibility of the Supreme Court addressing this issue, it is likely to arise in legislatures, in governors’ clemency decisions, and in the public forum. The Supreme Court denied certiorari, 124 S. Ct. 807 (2003).

Read United States v. Quinones (2d Cir.)

Arguments in United States v. Quinones were heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Monday, October 21, 2002. The court was to determine whether a federal trial court was correct in ruling that the federal death penalty was unconstitutional. The trial court had cited the high risk of executing innocent defendants in not allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Read Defendant’s Appellate Brief

Read Judge Rakoff’s July 1, 2002 opinion in U.S. v. Quinones (Dist. Ct.)

Read Judge Rakoff’s April 25, 2002 preliminary ruling (Dist. Ct.)

Summary of Defendant’s Brief

Repeated Mistakes Render Death Penalty Unconstitutional

In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, defendant Alan Quinones argues that the recent revelations of numerous wrongful convictions in capital cases present an unacceptable risk in applying the death penalty. He maintains that the decision of the lower court holding the federal death penalty unconstitutional should be affirmed: “[T]he District Court correctly held that to continue to execute, knowing as we now do that in the process we will kill a substantial number of innocent citizens, is just as constitutionally intolerable as to knowingly execute an innocent person.”

The brief makes three main points:

1. The protections necessary for the constitutional implementation of the death penalty must be evaluated in terms of the current standards of decency and recent knowledge about the inaccuracies in this system. It is not enough to look back to the Supreme Court’s upholding of the constitutionality of capital punishment in 1976. What constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” and the legal safeguards necessary to protect fundamental rights evolve with time and are informed by such events as repeated exonerations from death row and the advent of DNA testing.

2. Prior reviews by courts of the constitutionality of the death penalty did not have the benefit of recent developments that have shown a continuous stream of innocent people sentenced to death, some coming close to execution. The most dramatic revelations have come in the form of exonerations following DNA testing which was not available at the time of trial. These exonerations question the reliability of the entire system to select only the guilty for the death penalty. There are a number of reasons why the courts may have made such fundamental errors, including the quality of representation, the use of suspect evidence, and the failure to turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defense. In the final analysis, the present system falls so far short of reliability as to be unacceptable. The risks of error may be even higher in capital cases than in non-capital prosecutions, and the federal death penalty system is in no way immune from these dangers.

Many federal death penalty prosecutions involve investigations of on-going criminal enterprises and require “cooperating accomplices” to make their case. Unlike the law in many states, federal law allows a conviction on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. Federal cases also provide less sharing of information between the prosecution and the defense than most states. Finally, a number of federal investigative agencies have been cited for error, incompetence, and misconduct.

3. To allow this trial and other similar trials to go forward is to accept the execution of an intolerable number of innocent people. The time is ripe for the courts to address this new reality. As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in its recent decision forbidding the execution of the mentally retarded: “we cannot ignore the fact that in recent years a disturbing number of inmates on death row have been exonerated.” Until the Supreme Court makes a definitive ruling in this matter, lower courts must act on the knowledge that the risk of fatal error is far greater than previously believed, and that we do not know how to cure the problem.

Factual Background

Alan Quinones and Diego Rodriguez were charged under federal law with a drug-related murder in the Bronx in 1999. Despite the contrary recommendation of the U.S. Attorney for this district, the Attorney General opted to seek the death penalty against both defendants. Following a pre-trial motion from the defendants, the presiding judge, Jed S. Rakoff, issued a preliminary ruling on April 25, 2002 stating that he was inclined to rule that the death penalty could not be sought because the federal statute was unconstitutional. Judge Rakoff gave the prosecution additional time to respond to his preliminary ruling that recent revelations about wrongful convictions in capital cases meant that the existing death penalty lacked sufficient due process protections. On July 1, the judge issued his final ruling, holding that it is “fully foreseeable that in enforcing the death penalty, a meaningful number of innocent people will be executed who otherwise would eventually be able to prove their innocence.”

The government has appealed this ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and the parties have submitted briefs in support of their positions. The case will be heard on Monday, October 21 in Manhattan.

Government’s Position

The government has argued in its brief that the constitutionality of the death penalty is well-established, and, to the extent that the risk of executing an innocent person plays any role in evaluating the necessary due process protections, that risk has already been taken into account. Moreover, the government states the federal death penalty has even more protections than the comparable state laws and that problems found in the latter system, including examples of wrongful convictions, should not be attributed to the federal system.

The Basis for Judge Rakoff’s Ruling

Judge Rakoff’s ruling that the death penalty is unconstitutional received wide national coverage and support. In his decision Judge Rakoff noted:

[T]he Court found that the best available evidence indicates that, on the one hand, innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed and that, on the other hand, convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions. It is therefore fully foreseeable that in enforcing the death penalty, a meaningful number of innocent people will be executed who otherwise would eventually be able to prove their innocence. (U.S. v. Quinones, 2002 U.S. Dist. Lexis 7320).

To draw his conclusions, Rakoff used information compiled by a number of national researchers and experts, including the Death Penalty Information Center’s innocence data. In his decision, he noted that DPIC’s innocence list is based on “reasonably strict and objective standards in listing and describing the data and summaries that appear on its website.” (U.S. v. Quinones, 2002 U.S. Dist. Lexis 7320).