April 01, 2020

Why a Moratorium?

Why a Moratorium?

Since the U. S. Supreme Court reaffirmed use of the death penalty in 1976, over 100 individuals sentenced to death have been freed from death row. In some cases, later-considered evidence established their innocence; in others, systemic failures prompted officials to conclude that the death sentence was unwarranted. In most of these cases, the system that erroneously convicted these individuals and sent them to death row also failed to discover and correct its errors.

With its emphasis on presumed innocence and protection of individual rights, the United States criminal justice system often has served as a model for other nations. But in death penalty cases, the reality is far from the ideal, often lacking even basic due process. Administration of the death penalty, rather than being fair and consistent, is instead a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency. As a practical matter, the best way to consider and fix these unfair practices requires removing the pressure of impending executions. The ABA, while taking no position on capital punishment per se, therefore has urged the federal and state governments to halt executions in order to take a hard look at the growing body of evidence showing that race, geography, wealth, and even personal politics can influence every stage of a capital case - from arrest through sentencing and execution.

Although calls for a temporary halt on executions have increased in recent years, it no longer can be doubted that many of the 3,300 death row inmates nationwide have not received the quality of legal representation that the severity and the finality of a death sentence demand. Restrictions on meaningful appellate review and inconsistencies in prosecutorial treatment of cases remain serious problems. Racial and ethnic bias infects the decisions as to who gets prosecuted and who gets sentenced to death. Geographic disparities remain rampant in the application of the death penalty. And the innocent still are not protected adequately from erroneous conviction. Indeed, our system cannot protect the innocent unless the criminal justice system administers capital punishment in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner, protecting everyone within the system. Until that time, the need for a moratorium remains as urgent as ever, both to prevent further executions of individuals whose convictions and death sentences have been imposed by an unfair and arbitrary system and to ensure an atmosphere conducive to full and objective analysis of systemic problems and remedies.

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