NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Searching for Capital Punishment That is "Fair, Just and Accurate"

April 22, 2002

In a widely-reported move in 2000, Illinois Gov. George Ryan (R) declared a moratorium on executions in his state and ordered a study of the issue. It was discovered that there were 13 innocent persons on death row and they were released.

But the death penalty continues to cause controversy.

  • Later this year, the American Judicature Society -- a research and education organization having a number of judges as members -- will consider a proposal for "innocence commissions," which would try to evaluate how and why the system fails, much as the National Transportation Safety Board reviews airplane crashes.
  • Since 1989, 106 people have been released from prison, and in 12 cases from death row, because DNA tests vindicated their innocence or vitiated the original prosecution case.
  • Over the past two years, the pace of DNA exonerations has nearly tripled.
  • These developments have caused criminologists to begin questioning the validity of eye-witness accounts of crimes.

Another area of concern is the uneven quality of defense lawyers appointed to represent the poor at capital trials.

Questions about the accuracy of the death penalty system have replaced questions surrounding its morality. Last week, a narrow majority of the Illinois panel called for the abolition of the death penalty -- not because it is morally wrong, but because it is practically impossible, and thus can't be fairly administered.

Source: Jim Dwyer and Jodi Wilgoren, "The System Dances with Death," New York Times, April 21, 2002.


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