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Letters to the 107th Congress

March 28, 2001

Honorable Patrick J. Leahy
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Honorable Gordon H. Smith
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senators Leahy and Smith:

On behalf of the American Bar Association, I write to congratulate you on your introduction of the Innocence Protection Act of 2001, S. 486, legislation that will help ensure that the system of capital punishment in this country is administered fairly and minimizes the risk that innocent people may be executed.

With the exception of our opposition to the imposition of the death penalty on the mentally retarded and individuals who committed their crimes while juveniles, the Association has taken no position either for or against capital punishment. However, the ABA House of Delegates in February 1997 overwhelmingly adopted a resolution calling upon jurisdictions that authorize capital punishment not to implement death sentences until they can ensure that all capital cases are handled fairly and in accordance with due process.

Four years after the adoption of the moratorium resolution, the administration of the death penalty remains deeply flawed, and is actually deteriorating in many jurisdictions. Numerous procedural barriers exist that prevent or truncate meaningful judicial review; and racial bias and poverty often play a role in determining who is sentenced to death. The ABA is particularly concerned that many jurisdictions have failed to establish the kind of legal services system necessary to ensure that defendants receive competent counsel at all stages of a capital case.

A key title of the Innocence Protection Act would encourage and assist states to provide competent legal services at every stage of a capital prosecution. The bill would establish a National Commission to develop standards for providing adequate legal representation for indigents facing a death sentence and would provide grants to help states implement these standards. By helping to ensure that all capital defendants are represented by competent counsel, S. 486 would reduce the risk of wrongful convictions and executions in capital cases, thus maintaining public confidence in our justice system.

Another important title of S. 486 would provide federal inmates who have credible claims of innocence with access to DNA testing and would prevent the government from destroying biological evidence without notice to the inmate. The legislation also encourages the states to adopt similar provisions, to ensure that state inmates have a meaningful opportunity to prove their innocence using DNA testing. The ABA House of Delegates adopted a resolution essentially consistent with this title in July 2000. The Association believes advances in DNA testing present a significant opportunity to improve the reliability of the criminal justice system and should be made available notwithstanding otherwise applicable procedural bars.

While Association policy does not address all elements of S. 486, the provisions of this bill relating to provision of competent counsel and DNA testing are critically important to safeguard the two most important functions of the criminal justice system: punishment of the guilty and protection of the innocent.

We commend you for your leadership on this issue and look forward to working with you to secure the prompt passage of this important legislation.


Martha Barnett
President, American Bar Association

Cc: Members of the Committee on the Judiciary

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