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Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional
Too many innocent people wrongly convicted, says district judge 
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Dateline:07/01/02

Comparing the punishment to "state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings," a federal trial judge in New York today declared the current federal death penalty unconstitutional.

On July 1, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan, found the death penalty "deprives innocent people of a significant opportunity to prove their innocence" and "creates an undue risk of executing innocent people," and thereby violates the Constitution's Fifth Amendment guarantee to due process of law.

In his decision in the case of U.S. v. Quinones, Judge Rakoff cited cases of death row inmates proven innocent of their crimes after being executed.

"In brief, the Court found that the best available evidence indicates that, on the one hand, innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed and that, on the other hand, convincing proof of their innocence often does not emerge until long after their convictions." wrote Judge Rakoff. "It is therefore fully foreseeable that in enforcing the death penalty a meaningful number of innocent people will be executed who otherwise would eventually be able to prove their innocence."

Directly addressing the federal death penalty in relation to the Fifth Amendment, the judge writes, "It follows that implementation of the Federal Death Penalty Act not only deprives innocent people of a significant opportunity to prove their innocence, and thereby violates procedural due process, but also creates an undue risk of executing innocent people, and thereby violates substantive due process." 

"State-sponsored murder."
Citing the what he called an "unacceptably high rate" of convictions of innocent people for capital crimes and "frequently prolonged delays before such errors are detected," Judge Rakoff concluded that the Federal Death Penalty Act denies the accused due process and "is tantamount to foreseeable, state-sponsored murder of innocent human beings."

Defending the death penalty, government lawyers argued that none of the 31 defendants executed under the Federal Death Penalty Act had later been found to have been innocent.

If upheld on appeals, this decision would halt federal executions only in New York, Connecticut and Vermont. It would have not effect in the 38 states with their own death penalty laws.

Judge Rakoff's decision was rendered in the case of U.S. v. Quinones.

Death Penalty on Trial
Rakoff's ruling comes less than two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark 6-3 decision, ruled that executing mentally retarded convicts violates the Eighth Amendment's constitutional protection against "cruel and unusual punishment."

While the Supreme Court's ruling did not directly address the constitutionality of the death penalty, it cited a growth in public opinion against capital punishment since 1989. Since 1989, he number of states barring execution of the mentally retarded has increased from two to eighteen. 

However, wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the Supreme Court's decision, "It is not so much the number of these states that is significant, but the consistency of the direction of the change."

The states of Maryland and Illinois recently halted executions pending studies that the application of capital punishment may discriminate unfairly against minorities. In addition, the American Bar Association (ABA) gave its support to a proposed national moratorium on the death penalty in 1997.

In 1986, the Bar Association founded the Death Penalty Representation Project to better inform the bar and the public of what it called "the lack of representation available to death row inmates."

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