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The Chicago Tribune

Lawyer Group Wants Executions Frozen

A three-year study finds unfairness and glitches, the American Bar Assn. says in calling for a national moratorium.

Maurice Possley

CHICAGO - The American Bar Assn., concluding a three-year study of capital punishment systems, found so many inequities and shortfalls that it is calling for a national freeze on executions.1029 08

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

They were among eight states examined by the association that provided the basis for its call to stop executions nationwide.

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

The study also focused on death penalty systems in Arizona, Florida and Pennsylvania, but it did not find their conditions as serious. The group says it does not take a position 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.

Prosecutors and supporters of death penalty have said the eight-state study was flawed because the ABA teams mainly consisted of opponents of capital punishment.

Joshua Marquis, district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and a vice president of the National District Attorneys Assn., 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. . . . 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."

In 2000, then-Gov. George H. Ryan of Illinois imposed a moratorium on execution, citing the release of several defendants from death row and newspaper reports about problems in the state's death penalty system.

Three years later, the Republican emptied death row, commuting the death sentences of 156 prisoners to life terms, after the Legislature took no action on recommendations for the system. Some of those measures, including videotaping of interrogations in murder cases, have since 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, the report said, 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."

"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."

The ABA did not study lethal injection procedures, which will be reviewed by the Supreme Court next year.

This report includes information from the Associated Press.

© 2007 The Chicago Tribune

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