Alabama Legal Team Says State Falls Short Of Ensuring Death Penalty Fairness, Urges Moratorium
CHICAGO, June 11, 2006 — A team of experts from Alabama’s legal community today said the state falls short of assuring fairness and accuracy in the administration of death penalty cases. Based on its review of Alabama’s capital punishment system, a majority of the team called for a temporary moratorium on executions until Alabama can assure the capital system’s fairness and accuracy.
The team conducted the study under the Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project of the American Bar Association housed in the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. Its report and recommendations have not been presented to ABA House of Delegates, and so do not constitute ABA policy. The ABA neither supports nor opposes the death penalty, but it does urge a moratorium on executions in each jurisdiction until fairness and due process are assured in death penalty cases.
Daniel M. Filler, a University of Alabama School of Law professor, is team chair and members include a state senator, a district attorney, a law school dean who also is a former federal magistrate, and four lawyers in private practice. Arthur Green Jr., district attorney for the Tenth Circuit‑Bessemer Division, dissented from recommending a moratorium on executions and eliminating judicial power to override jury recommendations for life sentences. The team notes more than 450 other organizations, including religious institutions, newspapers and local government units, also have endorsed a temporary moratorium on executions in Alabama.
“The Alabama team noted there are many in Alabama’s legal and political community committed to assuring justice. Yet they found numerous areas in which the state’s efforts fall short,” said ABA President Michael S. Greco.
“As former ABA President Jack Curtin of Boston observed, ‘A system that will take a life must first give justice.’ I commend the Alabama team for its thorough scholarship and detailed analysis of the state’s capital punishment system, and urge Alabama’s leadership to accept this challenge and implement reforms,” he said.
Filler noted that while the report identifies individual problems, “We caution that their harms are cumulative. The capital system has many interconnected moving parts; problems in one area can undermine sound procedures in others.”
In assessing the state system, the team measured Alabama law, procedure and practices against protocols developed by the ABA to evaluate death penalty jurisprudence. It found Alabama is in compliance with four protocols, in partial compliance with 14, not in compliance with 37, and two were inapplicable. For 24 of the protocols, the team was unable to obtain enough information to assess compliance.
Broad areas of non-compliance identified as in need of reform are:
* Inadequate and inconsistent indigent defense services at trial and on direct appeal.
* Lack of defense counsel for state post-conviction proceedings.
* Lack of a statute setting standards to identify people with mental retardation, who are ineligible for execution under a ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States.
* Lack of a statute specifically providing for post-conviction DNA testing.
Inadequate review of whether individual death sentences are proportionate to other sentences for like crimes.
* Failure to define “heinous, atrocious or cruel” as an aggravating factor warranting a death sentence.
Inadequate jury instructions, frequently leading to confusion by jurors about their role and responsibilities in death cases.
While each section of the report makes recommendations based on the ABA’s protocols, the team also recommended state action independent of the protocols:
* Eliminate the power of a judge to override a jury recommendation that a defendant be sentenced to life without parole, rather than death.
* Sponsor a study to determine whether there are disparities in socio-economic status, race, geography or other bases in sentencing to death.
* Establish a clearinghouse to collect data on the death penalty system.
* Require that juries be unanimous in recommending a sentence of death.
* Create a statewide indigent defense commission to oversee all indigent defense activities in the state.
Alabama is the second of 16 states being assessed under the ABA project, which developed the protocols in 2001. Georgia was the first. Other assessments are being conducted in Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Neither the protocols nor individual state assessment reports have been adopted by the ABA House of Delegates.
With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law in a democratic society.