July 08, 2020

State Assessments

What is the State Assessments Project?

Click on a STATE for more information about the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project's State Assessments

From 2003 to 2007, the Moratorium Project undertook its first series of assessments on the administration of capital punishment in eight U.S. states. The assessments give jurisdictions an objective instrument to evaluate the administration of the death penalty, based upon uniform benchmarks in varied aspects of capital punishment processes. The reports demonstrate why jurisdictions should undertake comprehensive studies of their death penalty systems and the range of topics that must be considered in any thorough assessment. Several State Assessment Reports have also recommended that the state undertake a moratorium on executions until the state appropriately addresses the recommendations contained within the Report. In each assessed capital jurisdiction, the actual practices of the capital jurisdiction is compared to a series of recommendations on the administration of the death penalty, based on the original ABA Protocols on the Administration of Capital Punishment (2001) and the revised version (2010).

Who Conducts the State Assessments on the Death Penalty?

Each state’s assessment is conducted by an on-the-ground Assessment Team. To the extent possible, each Assessment Team is composed of or had access to law school professors, current or former defense attorneys, current or former prosecutors, state bar representatives, current or former judges, and state legislators. The Assessment Team determines whether the state is in compliance with over 90 ABA benchmarks on the fair and accurate administration of the death penalty. Biographies of Assessment team members may be found in each state’s assessment report. Assessment Team members are not required to support or oppose capital punishment, or to support the ABA’s moratorium position, in order to participate.

Why are the Assessments needed?

Decades after Gregg v. Georgia (1976), in which the Supreme Court held states’ capital punishment statutes constitutional, numerous concerns have arisen over states’ ability to fairly and accurately determine who should be sentenced to death. Lawyers, courts, social scientists, law enforcement personnel, victims’ families and many, many others have weighed in on what problems they perceive to exist in the system. However, whether it be due to inability or unwillingness to take on the issue, most states have not conducted the kind of comprehensive examination of their capital punishment system that is necessary to determine if, and to what extent, problems exist in the administration of that state’s death penalty. Although some states have conducted limited reviews or studies, only Illinois has conducted the type of review that the ABA has concluded is essential to identify and address core problems in the administration of the death penalty. The Assessments Project seeks to assist capital jurisdictions by providing a starting point from which a state may conduct its own examination of its death penalty.

Assessment Guide

The assessment teams are responsible for collecting and analyzing various laws, rules, procedures, standards, and guidelines relating to the administration of the death penalty. In an effort to guide the teams with the assessments, the Project translated the Protocols into an Assessment Guide detailing the data to be collected and identifying ways to analyze the data. The Assessment Guide includes sections on the following:

  • (1) death row demographics, evolution of the state death penalty statute, and the location of information
  • (2) collection and preservation of DNA and other types of forensic evidence
  • (3) law enforcement tools and techniques
  • (4) crime laboratories and medical examiners
  • (5) prosecutors
  • (6) defense services during trial, appeal, and state post-conviction proceedings
  • (7) direct appeal and the unitary appeal process
  • (8) state post-conviction relief proceedings and federal habeas corpus
  • (9) clemency
  • (10) jury instructions
  • (11) judicial independence
  • (12) racial and ethnic minorities
  • (13) mentally retarded and mentally ill offenders.