Feb 17, 2022
A bipartisan group of 56 elected prosecutors came together in a new joint statement calling for "a more fair, just, and accountable criminal legal system" in the U.S. that includes bringing a permanent and complete end to the death penalty.
"It is time to work together toward systemic changes that will bring about the elimination of the death penalty nationwide."
"Although we hold varied opinions surrounding the death penalty and hail from jurisdictions with different starting points on the propriety of this sentence, we have all now arrived at the same inexorable conclusion: our country's system of capital punishment is broken," the group declared. "It is time to work together toward systemic changes that will bring about the elimination of the death penalty nationwide."
The joint statement, released Thursday and first reported by NBC News, notes that the U.S. is an outlier among Western democracies in its use of "a capital punishment system that costs taxpayers over $1 million per death sentence, runs counter to our constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and guarantees of due process and equal protection, fails as an effective deterrent, and does not reduce crime."
Signatories include district attorneys, state attorneys, and state attorneys general who represent over 20 states including ones that have abolished the death penalty like Illinois and New York as well as states such as Texas and Arizona which still allow the practice. The letter was organized by the Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP) network.
While use of the death penalty is in decline, the group expressed continued concern that "far too many cases offer troubling examples of its application in situations that should concern us all" and urged "all prosecutive leaders to, at a minimum, refuse to seek death sentences against individuals with cognitive impairments or otherwise diminished culpability, and to work to remedy past cases that resulted in unjust capital sentences."
Further problematic are the "racial biases... embedded deep within our system of capital punishment" and the fact that innocent people are being convicted, the statement notes.
The prosecutors also point out that "at least 186 people on death row have been exonerated over the last half-century; for every nine people who have been executed since 1976, at least one condemned person has been exonerated."
Arguing they remain "duty-bound to counter these egregious injustices," the prosecutors in their letter vow to take a number of specific actions as redress:
For those of us in states where the death penalty is still permitted, we will uphold Supreme Court precedent and the interests of justice by refusing to seek the death penalty against people with intellectual disabilities, post-traumatic stress disorder, histories of traumatic brain injury, or other intellectual or cognitive challenges that diminish their ability to fully understand and regulate their own actions. We will support efforts to identify individuals currently on death row in our jurisdictions who experienced these challenges and to seek commutations or other just resolutions. We will also support efforts to overturn existing death sentences in cases that feature a colorable claim of innocence, racial bias, egregiously inadequate or negligent defense counsel, discovery violations, or other misconduct that render us unable to stand by the sentence in good faith. This is the bare minimum that justice demands of us.
The group further vowed "to work toward the elimination of our nation's failed death penalty system, once and for all."
According to Miriam Krinsky, executive director of FJP and a former federal prosecutor, "The death penalty is an archaic and failed institution that fails to provide any benefit to public safety, is rooted in racism, and too often punishes the innocent."
"That we continue to put people with intellectual disabilities to death 20 years after the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional is further proof of this deeply broken system," she said in a statement Thursday.
Twenty-seven states still authorize the death penalty. At the federal level, President Joe Biden--who campaigned on a promise to end the death penalty--last year put a moratorium on federal executions. Months after that suspension, a group of House Democrats urged Biden to go further by directing Department of Justice prosecutors to stop seeking the death penalty.
Last year a group of United Nations experts urged Biden to exercise his authority to end executions at both the state and federal levels, declaring the punishment "an abhorrent practice" that "serves no deterrent value and cannot be reconciled with the right to life."
A November Gallup poll showed support among the American public for capital punishment at a five-decade low, thought 54% of U.S. adults still said they back the death penalty for convicted murderers.
This story has been updated to include comment from Miriam Krinsky and reflect that the letter was organized by Fair and Just Prosecution.
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