O'Connor Questions Death Penalty Fairness

M I N N E A P O L I S, July 3, 2001 -- Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said there are "serious questions" about whether the death penalty is being fairly administered in the United States.

"If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed," O'Connor said Monday in a speech to the Minnesota Women Lawyers group.

O'Connor, who has been a swing vote on several death penalty cases, said six death row inmates were exonerated and released last year, and that 90 inmates have been exonerated and set free since 1973.

O'Connor said the growing availability of DNA testing may alleviate some concerns. But she said most states with capital punishment have not passed laws addressing post-conviction testing.

She also said the quality of defense lawyers for people in capital cases has been inadequate in too many cases.

"Perhaps it's time to look at minimum standards for appointed counsel in death cases and adequate compensation for appointed counsel when they are used," she said.

O'Connor noted a rise in the number of executions since she was appointed to the high court in 1981. She said there were 856 death row inmates across the country that year, compared to 3,711 in 2000. O'Connor said one inmate was executed in 1982, compared to 85 last year.

Noting that Minnesota does not have the death penalty, O'Connor said, "You must breathe a big sigh of relief every day."