Cannot Be Resurrected
"A system that will take life
must first give justice."
-- Former ABA President John J. Curtin Jr.
By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Aug. 16, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
In the last 35 years, perhaps no legal issue has generated more passionate debate than the imposition of the death penalty.
In 1972 the United States Supreme Court landmark decision in Furman v. Georgia held that Georgia's death penalty violated the Eight Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment:
"We deal with a system of law and of justice that leaves to the uncontrolled discretion of judges or juries the determination whether defendants committing these crimes should die or be imprisoned. Under these laws, no standards govern the selection of the penalty. People live or die, dependent on the whim of one man or of 12." Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, writing one of five concurring opinions.
Four years later, the Supreme Court approved a restructured death penalty law in Georgia. Since then the issue has been the subject of a multitude of court challenges, highlighted in this state by the recent execution of serial killer, Michael Ross.
Since 1976, 38 states, as well as the federal government, have established the death penalty.
In 2001, the American Bar Association (ABA) established the Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, to monitor and promote progress toward a nationwide moratorium. In response, 19 of the 38 states that authorize capital punishment have considered legislation seeking a moratorium on executions. There are active moratorium campaigns in 36 of those 38. The ABA reports that more than 60 state and local governments have adopted resolutions calling for a moratorium.
Moral opposition to the death penalty was not the motivating force behind the initiative by the ABA. Rather, it was a realization that the system of imposing death was replete with serious instances of injustice: deficiencies in the quality of legal representation; lack of meaningful appellate review; inconsistencies in prosecutorial decisions to seek death; racial and ethnic bias as well as geographic disparities; the execution of mentally retarded individuals and those under the age of 18; and, most importantly the failure of the system to ensure that the innocent are protected adequately from wrongful conviction.
In 2000, then Governor Ryan of Illinois imposed a moratorium on the state's death penalty citing the fact that since 1977, 13 death row inmates had been exonerated and 12 put to death.
Ryan was not the only politician to question the fairness of the system by which death is imposed. Former Georgia Congressman, Bob Barr, a conservative who long supported capital punishment, recently published an opinion piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution critical of the fairness and accuracy of capital convictions, citing the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court to grant a stay of execution to a Georgia inmate because of concern for the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in that case.
A Gallup Poll released in the June revealed a significant decrease in public support for the death penalty. Although the report notes that Americans still largely support capital punishment, the overall percentage dropped from 80 percent in 1994 to 65 percent.
The issue continues to challenge our values as a society of laws. Religion and morality aside, fairness in the process is paramount. Two hundred inmates freed from wrongful convictions by the Innocence Project can be released from their cells and even compensated for the years spent in confinement. Those wrongfully executed cannot be resurrected.
Information on the continued efforts to study the death penalty can be found at the Death Penalty Information Center website: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, American Academy of Trial Counsel. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com