Death Penalty Study Again Finds Disturbing Errors
February 19, 2002

    The U.S. states that execute the most people also have the highest death penalty reversal rates, a new study has revealed. The findings come as capital punishment comes under increasing scrutiny in the United States. The main factors driving heavy use of the death penalty are race, politics, and shoddy law enforcement, the study says. "The evidence is clear: the more we seek the death penalty, the more we get it wrong," said Wayne Smith, executive director of the Washington- based Justice Project, a criminal justice reform group that posted the study on its website, "If this continues, we will almost certainly execute an innocent person, if we haven't already," Smith said.

Compiled by Columbia University law professor James Liebman, "A Broken System" is the 2nd installment of an in-depth analysis of capital punishment in the United States between 1973 - the year the death penalty was reinstated - and 1995.

The 1st part, issued in June 2000, found that 68 percent of all death penalty cases were overturned by higher courts due to "serious error" - primarily "egregiously incompetent" defense lawyers, suppression of exculpatory evidence by police and prosecutors, and faulty instructions to jurors. In the new study, Liebman analyses the 10 jurisdictions that rely most heavily on the death penalty - led by Florida, Georgia, and Texas. Every one had higher error rates than the national average of 68 %. What is more, "the higher proportion of African Americans in a state, the higher the rate of serious capital error," Liebman found. "Other things being equal, reversal rates are twice as high where homicides are most heavily concentrated on whites compared to blacks, than where they are most heavily concentrated on blacks," according to the study. "A Broken System" is being released as Texas prepares to execute Thomas Miller-El, an African-American man convicted of shooting 2 hotel workers during a robbery, killing one of them. A death sentence must be unanimous, and Miller-El's lawyers say prosecutors deliberately excluded blacks from his jury - a practice that is not only illegal but could have led to a harsher sentence. According to former Dallas County prosecutors and evidence unearthed in the 1980s by the Dallas Morning News, this was long standard procedure in Texas.

    A memorandum on jury selection written in 1963 directed Dallas County prosecutors to dismiss "Jews, Negroes, Dagos and Mexicans." While the ethnic slurs were eventually abandoned, as late as 1980 training manuals asserted, "Minorities usually empathise with the accused" and should be avoided. The newspaper also found that between 1980 and 1986 - the year Miller-El was convicted and sentenced to die - Dallas County prosecutors used so-called "peremptory challenges", for which no explanation need be given, to eliminate 9 out of 10 potential black jurors in capital murder cases. In the Miller-El case, 7 of 18 potential black jurors were dismissed using peremptory challenges, and just 1 of the remaining 11 made it onto the jury. That juror apparently said he believed execution was too "lenient" a punishment, and suggested that defendants should be coated with honey and staked to an anthill. Miller-El's lawyers have filed a last-minute appeal for clemency with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to rule on the petition Friday - less than a week before he is scheduled to die by lethal injection. His case has gained support from the Texas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and other civil rights groups. Rights activists have long complained that the bias against African Americans and other minority communities when applying the death penalty is endemic in the U.S. justice system.

    According to a report last month by Amnesty International, 80 percent of the more than 750 prisoners executed since 1977 were convicted of killing whites, even though blacks and whites are the victims of murder in almost equal numbers. 80 % were executed in the southern U.S. states, 1/3 in Texas alone. Echoing Miller-El's charges, Amnesty says "dozens of African Americans (have been) convicted by all-white juries in cases which show a pattern of prosecutors removing prospective black jurors during jury selection." In light of recent exposes like Liebman's, Congress is considering a bill called the Innocence Protection Act, which calls for expanded DNA testing, greater oversight of lawyers in capital cases, and a guarantee that juries are properly instructed in alternative sentences, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole. "In parts of the country, it is often better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent," said Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, noting that 95 death row inmates have been exonerated so far. "If we had a series of close calls in air traffic, we would be rushing to fix the problem," he said. "These close calls on death row should concentrate our minds, and focus our will, to act."      (source: Black World Today)