Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy In State Death Penalty Systems


Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy In State Death Penalty Systems


The Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Report
An Analysis of Texas's Death Penalty Laws, Procedures, and Practices

Fairness and accuracy together form the foundation of the American criminal justice system. As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, these goals are particularly important in cases in which the death penalty is sought. Our system cannot claim to provide due process or protect the innocent unless it provides a fair and accurate system for every person who faces the death penalty.

Over the course of the past thirty years, the American Bar Association (ABA) has become increasingly concerned that capital jurisdictions too often provide neither fairness nor accuracy in the administration of the death penalty. In response to this concern, on February 3, 1997, the ABA called for a nationwide suspension of executions until serious flaws in the system are identified and eliminated. The ABA urges capital jurisdictions to (1) ensure that death penalty cases are administered fairly and impartially, in accordance with due process, and (2) minimize the risk that innocent persons may be executed.

In the fall of 2001, the ABA, through the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, created the Death Penalty Due Process Review Project (the Project).1 The Project conducts research and educates the public and decision-makers on the operation of capital jurisdictions' death penalty laws and processes in order to promote fairness and accuracy in death penalty systems. The Project encourages legislatures, courts, administrative bodies, and state and local bar associations to adopt the ABA's Protocols on the Fair Administration of the Death Penalty; provides technical assistance to state and federal stakeholders on death penalty issues; and collaborates with other individuals and organizations to develop new initiatives to support reform of death penalty processes.

To assist the majority of capital jurisdictions that have not yet conducted comprehensive examinations of their death penalty systems, the Project began in February 2003 to examine several U.S. jurisdictions' death penalty systems and preliminarily determine the extent to which they achieve fairness and minimize the risk of executing the innocent. To date, the Project has conducted assessments examining the administration of the death penalty in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia, and released reports on these states' capital punishment systems in 2006, 2007, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

All of these assessments of state law and practice use as a benchmark the protocols set out in the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities' 2001 publication, Death without Justice: A Guide for Examining the Administration of the Death Penalty in the United States (ABA Protocols). While the Protocols are not intended to cover exhaustively all aspects of the death penalty, they do cover seven key aspects of death penalty administration: defense services, procedural restrictions and limitations on state post-conviction and federal habeas corpus proceedings, clemency proceedings, jury instructions, an independent judiciary, racial and ethnic minorities, and mental retardation and mental illness. Additionally, the Project added five new areas to be reviewed as part of the assessments in 2006: preservation and testing of DNA evidence, law enforcement identification and interrogation procedures, crime laboratories and medical examiners offices, prosecutors, and the direct appeal process.

Each assessment has been or is being conducted by a state-based assessment team. The teams are comprised of or have access to current or former judges, state legislators, current or former prosecutors, current or former defense attorneys, active state bar association leaders, law school professors, and anyone else whom the Project felt was necessary. Team members are not required to support or oppose the death penalty or a suspension of executions.