UN v. USA re: Death Penalty

June 10, 2009

On May 26, the United Nations released a report by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, which highlights, among other things, some of the major flaws in the US judicial system related to the death penalty.  The report focuses particularly on the sates of Texas and Alabama, where the research of the Special Rapporteur was concentrated. 

The report rightfully notes that the current judicial system in those two states is significantly flawed as it leaves room for the wrongful conviction and execution of innocent people, something that was confirmed even by interviews with public officials.  In that respect, the author provides a detailed review of the judicial failings related to the death penalty.  He notes that there are legal limitations preventing inmates from access to DNA tests once they have already been convicted.  In addition, the defense attorneys appointed to death penalty cases often receive compensation far lower than what is necessary to construct an adequate defense.  Appointed counsel also frequently have continuing professional relationships with the judges before whom they appear, which can be the source of “structural disincentives for vigorous capital defense.”  The access of defendants to federal habeas corpus proceedings, the report asserts, is also too limited. 

At the same time, finality in death penalty cases is often granted undue emphasis at the expense of a careful examination of the potential evidence related to innocence claims.  The author notes that in Alabama, “officials would rather deny (the execution of innocent people) than confront criminal justice system flaws.” Unfortunately, this is true not only in Alabama, as has become evident in the case of Troy Davis, who may soon face his fourth execution date in two years, despite the fact that the case against him was build predominantly on the testimony of nine witnesses, seven of whom have recanted their statements (and have alleged that they were coerced by authorities) since the time of Troy’s conviction.  However, despite opposition from human rights activists across the world, Troy has remained on death row for 18 years and has not yet received a hearing on the details of his case that have emerged since the time of his conviction.  Moreover, the failure of the judicial system to hear the evidence in support of Troy’s innocence means that the person truly responsible for the murder of which Troy was convicted, has not yet faced any legal consequences for his action.  This danger was also highlighted in the UN report, according to which “wrongful convictions mean that true criminals remain at large.” 

The UN report also points to the drawbacks in the electoral system for appointing judges in Texas and Alabama, which highly politicizes death penalty cases.  In fact, the author cites statistics suggesting that the likelihood of a death penalty sentence is directly correlated with the imminence of judicial elections or with the lobbying efforts of groups that are supporters of capital punishment.  He also pinpoints the particular problems with judicial elections in Alabama, where jury decisions can be overruled by elected judges, and where nine out of ten cases in which a judge overrode a jury decision resulted in a death sentence.  Finally, the report uncovers the existence of racial bias behind the imposition of the death penalty across the country, something that is confirmed by the research of Amnesty International USA.