ABA Reports on Flawed Death Penalty Systems and Calls for Nationwide Moratorium

Article Media

The American Bar Association (ABA) released the findings of a three-year study of state death penalty systems, identifying several serious problems and calling for a nationwide moratorium on executions.  The findings show that state death penalty systems lack essential elements of due process and are plagued by unfairness and irregularity, prompting Stephen Hanlon, Chair of the Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project to refer to the systems as, “deeply flawed.”

Though the ABA takes no position for or against the death penalty itself, it has urged for a moratorium for the past 10 years, arguing that states should conduct thorough and exhaustive studies to determine whether their systems meet legal standards for fairness and due process before executing more prisoners.  Upon review of the findings from the recent study, the ABA has continued to call for a moratorium and for further analyses. 

For the recent study, teams of legal experts assessed the death penalty systems in 8 states over a period of 3 years, using 93 protocols developed by the ABA to measure the due process and fairness the state provides.  Click here for a listing of all 93 protocols and how each state fared.

California’s death penalty system was not included in the 8-state sample, but many of the most serious problems identified by the study have been recognized in California’s system as well.  The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice was created by the state Senate in 2004 to study the causes of wrongful conviction and executions.  While the Commission is just beginning to address issues specific to California’s death penalty system, it has issued a series of interim reports that echo many of the problems identified in the ABA study.

Some of the most serious and pervasive problems described in the ABA’s report include:

  • Significant racial disparities in imposing the death penalty. Click here for more information about geographic and racial disparities in California’s death penalty system.
  • Serious mistakes or fraud in crime laboratories. The Commission issued a related report in May 2007, pointing to a lack of standards for the use of forensic evidence, and identifying needed reforms.  Click here for the full report.
  • Lack of standards requiring law enforcement agencies to comport with national best practices on eye-witness identification, interrogation, and the use of jailhouse informants. Click here to read the Commission’s unanimous reports recommending reforms in these areas.  SB 511, 756 and 609, introduced in 2007, would have implemented these reforms, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed all 3 bills.
  • Unchecked prosecutorial discretion and misconduct. Click here to read the Commission’s most recent report, which encourages more frequent reporting of misconduct and stronger disciplinary procedures.
  • Overburdened and inadequate defense counsel. The same report that calls for more discipline of prosecutorial misconduct also identifies the need for higher standards and better training for capital defense counsel.

In January, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice will begin examining other problems with California’s death penalty, including the inability to find enough qualified attorneys to defend death cases. This examination comes as executions remain on hold due to problems with the lethal injection procedure and will provide Californians much needed information about the deep flaws in the death penalty in this state.

File Under

Main Article Content