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Questioning capital punishment: DNA has been used to exonerate a number of death cow inmates, calling into question the reliability of the system.

Convicted serial rapist and killer Michael Ross was on Connecticut's death row for 18 years. He was executed in May. Connecticut had not executed anyone in 44 years, most of Ross' life. As appeals are exhausted and execution dates close in on offenders like Ross, who were sentenced 10, 20 and even 30 years ago, the death penalty becomes real.

Today, 38 states have the death penalty. Recent cases in which DNA evidence was used to exonerate individuals on death row have increased the public's concern regarding certain flaws in the system. State legislators are of two minds on how to respond to the findings. Some are working to improve the integrity of the system. Others think the remedy is complete abolition of the death penalty. In both camps, there is a sense of urgency to ensure that no individual is wrongfully put to death.

Proponents argue that the death penalty brings criminals to justice and serves as a deterrent to killers who fear arrest, conviction and the ultimate death sentence. "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers, if we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call," says John McAdams of Marquette University's Department of Political Science on the Web site Pro-Death According to a 2004 Gallop Poll, 67 percent of Americans are in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder.

On the other hand, opponents of the death penalty argue that it is applied arbitrarily, is discriminating and is unreliable. In a study by the U. S. General Accounting Office, race of the victim influenced decisions in 82 percent of cases reviewed. Those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. In the years since the U.S. Supreme Court reenacted the death penalty, some 119 people have been released from death row because of new evidence of their innocence.

The fear of executing an innocent person is paramount in the public's perception of the death penalty, says Connecticut Representative Mike Lawlor. "Even those who are not philosophically against the death penalty see that, practically, it has many procedural problems. Even if everyone does not favor abolishing it, we see that people recognize the need for reform," he says.

Earlier this year, the Connecticut General Assembly's Judiciary Committee advanced a measure to abolish the death penalty. The legislation failed to pass the full House, and even if it had, it would have had all uncertain fate in the Senate and with the governor. But symbolically, the committee's attention and actions raised the issue to a new level in the state.

"Opposition to capital punishment has been raised because the legal process often further traumatizes the victims' families," Lawlor says. "The death penalty can put family members of the victim on a roller-coaster ride and it becomes cruel and unusual punishment for them."

But many families favor executing the offenders. Edwin Shelly, the father of one of Ross's victims, said it was time for Michael Ross "to face his punishment."

In the past two years, at least IS other states have introduced measures to abolish the death penalty without success. This year Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee and Washington did so.


Legislatures are also responding to U.S. Supreme Court rulings that scale back the circumstances under which the death penalty can be imposed. In recent years, the Court has held that the Constitution prohibits the death penalty for mentally retarded offenders and that it is "cruel and unusual punishment" when used for juveniles who are under the age of 18 when the crime is committed.

In addition to the 18 states that had already outlawed executions of the mentally retarded through state enactments, eight states have since amended their statutes to comply with the Court decision.

At the time of the ruling, there were 19 states that imposed the death penalty on juvenile offenders and approximately 72 juvenile offenders on death row throughout the county.


The cost of the death penalty is also a growing concern. For example, in California, maintaining the capital punishment system costs taxpayers approximately $114 million a year--more than keeping offenders behind bars for life, according to state and federal records obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Recent studies of death penalty costs also illustrate that capital punishment trials are longer and more expensive at every stage of the process than other murder trials. The state currently has 640 people on death row, which is 20 percent of the nation's total. California, however, only accounts for 1 percent of the nation's total executions. Since 1978, 11 people have been executed in California.

Florida lawmakers considered a measure in 2005 to expedite the capital punishment process by limiting frivolous lawsuits and multiple appeals. "It is imperative to bring closure to the victims' families," says the sponsor, Representative Dick Kravitz. "There is just something wrong when offenders are actually outliving the victims' family members."

Illinois is among states that have labored to overcome problems with their death penalty system in the past few years. In 2003, Illinois lawmakers enacted significant reform, affecting every point from murder investigations to post-conviction. Many changes were designed to address cases of wrongful incarceration. The law gives the Illinois Supreme Court greater power to throw out unjust verdicts, bars the death penalty in cases based on a single witness or single police informant, and provides defendants more access to evidence that is favorable to them.

"Calls to abolish the death penalty in light of its flaws aren't likely to be heeded," says Senator John Cullerton, who sponsored Illinois' reform law. "Use of the death penalty is a reality, so we need to be realistic and reform the system we have."

Sarah Brown Hammond tracks criminal justice issues at NCSL.


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* The New York (6/24) and Kansas (12/17) death penalty statutes were declared unconstitutional in 2004


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Author:Hammond, Sarah Brown
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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