The report, released yesterday by the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Centre, warns that recent legislation approved by the Congress and President Bill Clinton to expedite the appeals process of convicted inmates and to minimise their access to legal help increases the odds that innocent people will be executed. Among the many cases cited in the report one concerns two men who were released after 10 years on Death Row even though another man confessed to the crime shortly after their conviction in 1985.
In another instance of gross miscarriage of justice, a man spent 18 years awaiting death in an Illinois prison until new evidence of his innocence providentially unearthed by three journalism students secured his freedom in June last year.
Some 6,000 people have been sentenced to death in the US since 1973 which translates, in the light of the report's figures, into a rate of more than one innocent death row inmate for every hundred death sentences passed. "The rate may be considerably higher," the report said, "since extraordinary efforts are generally needed to free a death row inmate, and most inmates do not have those extra resources available to them."
The statistical evidence suggests that at least 32 of the 3,200 inmates currently awaiting death by lethal injection, hanging or the electric chair are innocent. But scant reason exists to believe that legislation signed by President Clinton last year to cut off all government funding for death penalty resource centres, a system introduced under Ronald Reagan's watch to assist lawyers conduct capital appeals, will be reversed soon.
America's elected leaders, responding to the public's impatience at the typically long delays between sentencing and execution, have been pressing both at state and federal level for new laws that will speed up the killing rates. Indeed, enthusiastic support for the death penalty is a sine qua non of electoral success for any candidate running for the presidency and most running for Congress.
A poll conducted by ABC television to coincide with a broadcast on Monday night dedicated to the Death Penalty Information Centre's report found that 77 per cent of respondents continued to favour legal executions against 19 per cent who unequivocally did not.
Bill McCollum, the Republican head of the House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee, is a proponent of capital punishment so zealous that he found motive for cheer in the report. "It shows," he said, "that the system is working quite well." In the light of the fact that 400,00 murders had been committed in the US since 1973, Mr McCollum said he was "encouraged" by statistics revealing that only 1 per cent of those sentenced to death had been mistakenly convicted.
Acknowledging that "justice is not perfect", he said such a margin of error represented an acceptable level of risk. Mr McCollum remains unmoved having read in the report the stories of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, who were sentenced to death in Illinois in 1985 for the murder of a 10- year-old girl. Another man, Brian Dugan, who had already pleaded guilty to two rapes and murders, confessed to the killing through his lawyer. Yet it took 10 years for a judge to throw out the case against the two men in 1995.
The fact that Hernandez, according to the court that initially convicted them, was borderline retarded never counted as a mitigating factor. Indeed, 31 offenders found to have been mentally retarded have been among the 400 executed in the US in the last two decades.
More than half of the 400 have been put to death in the past five years, pushing the US into the top ranks of the world's legal executioners alongside Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.Reuse content