Lawyers Move to Kill Death Penalty

Underfunded, understaffed and plagued by racial bias, the nation's system for executing inmates is deeply flawed, and should be stopped until improvements are made, the American Bar Association said in a report released Sunday.

The report, which was based on research conducted in eight states, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Ohio, examined the "fairness and accuracy" of death penalty systems, and found "serious flaws in every state," according to the authors.

"We just do not have confidence in the capital justice system after studying it," Stephen Hanlon, chairman of the ABA's Death Penalty Moratorium Project, told ABC News. "Capital defense systems are being underfunded, and unqualified and underresourced lawyers are defending death row inmates."

"In determining who gets the death penalty," Hanlon added, "all too frequently, it seems to be not the person who has committed the worst crime, but the person who has the worst lawyer."

Sunday's report, compiled by former judges, prosecutors, defense counsels, and other legal experts over a period of three years, detailed 13 separate sets of problems, including sloppy gathering and testing of DNA evidence, underfunded forensics labs, false confessions leading to convictions, and unreliable eyewitness testimony.

The report also showed a higher rate of death sentences in cases where victims are white rather than black.

Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank that hosts a committee on safeguarding fairness in executions, says the ABA report shouldn't surprise anybody.

"There are problems in every jurisdiction that has capital punishment," said Sloan, who also works as a member of the Death Penalty Moratorium Project's steering committee. "The process is broken, and unless there are adequate protections, there should be a moratorium on capital punishment."

But not all affected parties welcomed the report.

William "Rusty" Hubbarth, vice president for legal affairs for the Texas victims' advocacy group, Justice for All, said he regretted that the American Bar Association was taking what he called "political stances."

"The ABA has always been a very, very liberal organization," Hubbarth told ABC News. "They have spent much more time worrying about the rights of the defendant, rather than the rights of the victims, or the rest of society."

The ABA report comes at a time of renewed intensity in the nation's discussion on capital punishment.

There are currently about 3,350 inmates awaiting execution across the United States, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Since the Supreme Court ruled that states could reinstate the death sentence in 1976, over 100 prisoners have been released from death row, based on faulty convictions.

And just last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case brought by two Kentucky inmates, who contended that lethal injection, the preferred method of execution in most states, violates the Eighth Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment."

Pending the court's decision in that case, expected sometime this spring, most states that allow capital punishment have frozen any scheduled executions.

The ABA, which does not take a public position on the death penalty, says it hopes Sunday's report will highlight what, it says, are indefensible flaws in the capital punishment system.

"We hope to reach decision makers who will take a hard and close look with further study, and then serious reform," Hanlon said. "Hopefully, until there is reform, we would see a halt to executions. Not to trials, but to executions."

Sloan echoed Hanlon's sentiment, but said the report's recommendations would be difficult to implement.

"The main problem is politics, and the political will and money," Sloan said. "The kinds of reforms that the ABA is demanding cost money.

"No one wants to allocate money to represent people that they think are the bad guys," she added. "Money for the criminal justice system is not on the top of people's list."

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