UN Human Rights Council Report Focuses on Alabama

At the end of May 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a report on execution processes and practices in the United States: “Promotion and Protection of All Human Rights, Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Including the Right to Development.”  The report’s author Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, focused a significant portion of the report on “the federal death penalty and the application of the death penalty in Alabama and Texas.” 

 This is not surprising as Alabama has the highest per capita execution rate in the nation.

Throughout the document, Alston takes a hard-line stance on justice in Alabama, finding room for improvement not only in Alabama’s courtroom processes, but in Alabama’s processes for selecting judges, as well as reviewing death penalty cases. Alston writes that in both Alabama and Texas, he “found a shocking lack of urgency about the need to reform glaring criminal justice system flaws. Each state should undertake a systematic inquiry into its criminal justice system and ensure that the death penalty is applied fairly, justly, and only for the most serious crimes. Deficiencies that should be remedied include the lack of adequate counsel for indigent defendants and racial disparities in sentencing. The system of electing judges in both states should be reconsidered because it politicizes the death penalty and unfairly increases the likelihood of a capital sentence. Given the inadequacies of state criminal justice systems, Congress should enact legislation permitting federal court habeas review of state and federal death penalty cases on the merits.”

The following are section excerpts from the report. A full version may be found here.

Uncovering Innocence

Alston reports that many resources are focused on expediting executions in both Texas and Alabama At present, a great deal of time and energy is spent trying to expedite executions, instead of analyzing “where the criminal justice system is failing in capital cases and why innocent people are being sentenced to death.”

As recent national news shows, there is a growing number of death row inmates exonerated of their crimes as DNA tests have proven their innocence. Alston writes, “In Texas, there is at least official recognition that reforms are needed and that innocent people may have been executed. In Alabama, the situation remains highly problematic…the truth is that Alabama’s capital system is simply not designed to uncover cases of innocence, however compelling they might be.”

Judicial Independence

In the report’s section on judicial independence Alston writes, “Alabama and Texas both have partisan elections for judges. My mandate does not extend to an evaluation of how a system of multi-million dollar campaigns for judicial office comports with judicial independence requirements. But if – as research and practice show – the outcome of such a system is to jeopardize the right of capital defendants to a fair trial and appeal, there is clearly a need to consider changes. Studies reveal that in states where judges are elected there is a direct correlation between the level of public support for the death penalty and judges’ willingness to impose or uphold death sentences. There is no such correlation in non-elective states. In particular, research shows that, in order to attract votes or campaign funds, judges are more likely to impose or refuse to reverse death sentences when: elections are nearing; elections are tightly contested; pro-capital punishment interest organizations are active within a district or state; and judges have electoral experience.”

“The goal of an independent judiciary is to ensure that justice is done in individual cases according to law. Too often, though, under judicial electoral systems, the death penalty is treated as a political rather than a legal matter. The significant impact of judicial electoral systems on capital punishment cases was recognized by many with whom I spoke. They strongly suggested that judges in both Texas and Alabama consider themselves to be under popular pressure to impose and uphold death sentences and that decisions to the contrary would lead to electoral defeat. Numerous government officials in both states openly stated that it was not possible to speak out against the death penalty and hope to get re-elected.”

“In Alabama, the problem of politicizing death sentences is heightened because state law permits judges to “override” the jury’s opinion in sentencing. Thus, even if a jury unanimously decides to sentence a defendant to life in prison, the judge can instead impose a death sentence. When judges override jury decisions, it is nearly always to increase the sentence to death rather than to decrease it to life – 90% of overrides imposed the death penalty. And a significant proportion of those on death row would not be there if jury verdicts had been respected. Over 20% of those currently on death row were given the death sentence by a judge overruling a jury decision for life without parole. According to one study, judicial overrides are twice as common in the year before a judge seeks re-election than in other years. In light of concerns about possible innocence and the irreversible nature of the death penalty, Alabama should relieve judges of the invidious influence of politics by repealing the law permitting judicial override.”

Right to Counsel

“One of the most fundamental rights Governments must provide criminal defendants is the right to counsel, which helps ensure defendants receive fair trials. But the right is empty, and reliable and just trial outcomes are threatened, if the quality of counsel is poor. In both Alabama and Texas, a surprisingly broad range of people in and out of government acknowledged that existing programs for providing criminal defense counsel to indigent defendants are inadequate.”

“Neither state has a statewide public defender system. Instead, individual counties in each state determine how counsel for the indigent will be appointed, with most opting for court-appointed counsel. One effect of such a system is that defense counsel are less likely to be independent. Counsel must appear before the same judges for their appointed death penalty cases as for the rest of their legal practice. Not surprisingly, this can create structural disincentives for vigorous capital defense. Such structural problems are compounded by inadequate compensation for counsel. Until 1998, court-appointed counsel in Alabama could only be compensated up to $1,000 per phase of the case. A significant proportion of current death row inmates were convicted during the time that cap was in place. Although hourly caps were subsequently enacted, they bear similarly little relation to the true costs of effectively defending a death penalty case.”

“Failure to provide an adequately-funded state-wide public defender has the predictable result of poor legal representation for defendants in capital cases. In Texas, one well-informed Government official referred to the overall quality of appointed defense counsel as “abysmal.” In Alabama, I read appellate legal briefs, submitted on behalf of defendants on death row, that barely reached ten pages, did not request oral argument, or were largely a bare restatement of the facts. Cost concerns also limit the extent to which qualified experts can or will be retained for the defense.”

“For there to be a meaningful right to counsel, major reforms are required. A positive first step is the system recently established in West Texas — a pilot multi-county public defender to provide capital defense in 85 counties. This project is an exception, however, and in both Texas and Alabama, state officials are considering half-measures they perceive to be money-saving, instead of the necessary establishment of state-wide, well-funded, independent public defender services.”

More information on the report’s author and the UN Human Rights Council can be found here.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this article!

    Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty

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