Tuesday, 20 February 2007
Report urges Indiana to halt executions, calling them "random"
By RICK CALLAHAN
The Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS - Indiana should temporarily halt executions until it improves its fairness and accuracy in meting out the death penalty to convicted murderers, a group urged Tuesday in a report that calls the state's executions "seemingly random."
The report by a team that's part of a death penalty project run by the American Bar Association found Indiana's application of the death penalty highly inconsistent. It warns that people convicted of committing murders under similar circumstances often get very different sentences, with some facing execution and others decades or life behind bars.
"The seemingly random process of charging decisions, plea agreements, and jury recommendations is just part of a death penalty system that has aptly been called Indiana's 'other lottery,"' the report states.
The assessment team that reviewed Indiana's death penalty system found that the state is in full compliance with only 10 of the 79 protocols the ABA drafted in 2001 to ensure that capital punishment is applied fairly to convicted murderers.
That seven-member group, which included former Gov. Joe Kernan, issued 12 recommendations in its report aimed at ensuring that capital punishment is imposed in a fair or consistent manner targeting only the "very worst offenders who have committed the very worst of offenses."
Those recommendations include banning the execution of offenders with severe mental illness, requiring law enforcement to record video or audio of all interrogations, and that the state adopt tougher attorney qualifications and monitoring procedures for attorneys in capital cases.
Among other things, the team found that there are racial disparities in the state's capital sentencing system, with blacks being targeted for execution more often than whites.
The report also found that the state lacks an independent statewide authority to appoint defense attorneys in capital cases.
"The assessment team has concluded that Indiana's death penalty system is broken," said Steve Hamlin, the ABA project director.
Jane Jankowski, press secretary for Gov. Mitch Daniels, said the governor has received the material from the ABA's Indiana assessment team "and he intends to review it."
Indiana State Prison Superintendent Ed Buss said 21 people are on the state's death row at the Michigan City prison. Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, Indiana has executed 17 convicted murderers, he said.
Kernan, who as governor commuted the death sentences of two condemned inmates to life in prison, said he supports a moratorium on executions until all levels of state government review the report and implement some of its key findings.
He said that in Indiana similar cases involving murders sometimes result in widely different sentences, and that such sentences - including the decision to seek the death penalty - are often dictated by local decisions.
"We want to make sure that our system is fair and that there are guidelines in terms of how sentences are put out and that the death penalty is reserved for those that we would consider the worst of the worst," Kernan said.
The team's report found that while hundreds of Hoosiers are murdered each year "under a variety of heinous circumstances," only a few of those cases result in a prosecutor seeking the death penalty, and that few of those eventually result in an execution.
Its recommendations include requiring law enforcement officials preserve all biological evidence, such as blood, in a defendant's case for as long as that person is incarcerated.
Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said biological material is currently saved only if it's entered as evidence in a murder trial, and that evidence is typically discarded if it is inconclusive or data could not be extracted from it.
Landis said it makes sense to save biological evidence for decades because advances in science promise to someday unlock information from that material.
"DNA has proven that innocent people can get convicted. With the advances in molecular biology and chemistry, who's to say we won't have breakthroughs in the next 20 years?" he said.
On The Net:
American Bar Association report on fairness and the death penalty: http://www.abavideonews.org/ABA340/