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Bar group seeks moratorium on executions

Study turns up inequities and shortfalls in system

CHICAGO (MCT) — The American Bar Association, concluding a three-year study of capital punishment systems in eight states, found so many inequities and shortfalls that the group is calling for a nationwide moratorium on executions.

In a study to be released today, the attorney organization, which has more than 400,000 members, said that death penalty systems in Indiana, Georgia, Ohio, Alabama and Tennessee in particular had so many problems that those states should institute a temporary halt to executions immediately until further study can be conducted.

They were among eight states studied that provided the basis for the association's call to halt executions nationwide.

"After carefully studying the way states across the spectrum handle executions, it has become crystal clear that the process is deeply flawed," Stephen Hanlon, chairman of the ABA's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, said in a statement.

The study also focused on death penalty systems in Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania but did not find the same serious conditions as cited in the other five. The ABA says it does not take a position either for or against the death penalty.

The study found "significant racial disparities" in the imposition of the death penalty, inadequate indigent defense programs, failures in crime laboratories, and a lack of uniformity in implementing nationally recognized best practices in eyewitness identification procedures as well as the recording of interrogations of suspects.

"The death penalty system is rife with irregularity — supporting the need for a moratorium until states can ensure fairness and accuracy," Hanlon said. Joshua Marquis, district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Association, said, "I think the ABA should drop its pretense of being neutral on the death penalty. ... They are being disingenuous by simply declaring that they want a moratorium. The powers that be in the ABA want the death penalty abolished."

Marquis, who supports the death penalty, said, "There is no doubt that you could always improve on the system. But the things they've cited suggest epidemics when they aren't.

"It is completely false to say that across the board crime labs are riddled with problems or that evidence is not retained," Marquis said. "There were innocent people on Death Row. There's no doubt about it. But this idea that the ABA is promoting, that the system is riddled with errors, is just plain wrong."

Beginning in 1997, the attorney organization called for moratoriums in states until "a thorough and exhaustive study to determine whether its system meets legal standards for fairness and due process" can be conducted.

In 2000, then-Gov. George Ryan, citing the release of several defendants from Death Row in Illinois, as well as reports in the Chicago Tribune about problems in the state's death penalty system, imposed a moratorium on executions. Three years later, Ryan emptied Death Row, commuting the death sentences of 156 prisoners to life terms, after the state legislature had failed to act upon recommendations to improve the system. Subsequently, some of those measures, including videotaping of interrogations in murder cases, have been passed.

But some states, the ABA study said, have not required prosecutors' offices to establish policies on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, or to evaluate cases based on evidence that is less reliable such as testimony by jailhouse informants or eyewitness identification.

"Most states have cases in which courts have found serious misconduct by prosecutors in capital cases, yet the prosecutors are not disciplined by the state disciplinary organization," according to the report.

Most states "do not require preservation of the evidence — particularly DNA evidence — through the entire legal process until the accused is either released from prison or executed," the report said.

Further, many states fail to provide a statewide indigent capital defense system and where attorneys are appointed to defend capital cases, the compensation "is often woefully inadequate, dipping to well under $50 per hour in some cases," the report found.

"When a life is at stake, there is no room for error or injustice," the report said. "Ultimately, serious problems were found in every state death penalty system."