Wednesday, December 7, 2011

ABA Press Release - The Kentucky Death Penalty Assessment Report

Kentucky Legal Team Identifies Problems With Commonwealth’s Death Penalty System, Calls for Moratorium on Executions

WASHINGTON, D.C., Dec. 7, 2011 — A two-year review of Kentucky’s system of capital punishment concludes that the commonwealth doesn’t adequately ensure fairness or sufficiently guard against executing the innocent.  The report, released today by the American Bar Association, calls for a suspension of executions in Kentucky until the identified problems are addressed and corrected.

The Kentucky-based assessment team was comprised of former state Supreme Court judges, a state legislator, state bar leaders, law school professors and other lawyers from the commonwealth.  The team also consulted with a number of state government and judicial entities, law enforcement and criminal justice groups.

“The assessment team in Kentucky is an esteemed group of highly dedicated individuals who are committed to ensuring justice,” said ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, a native of the state.  “The report provides a thorough analysis of the death penalty system, and identifies many areas that need reform,” he said.

The report evaluates Kentucky’s laws, rules, procedures, standards and guidelines relating to administration of the death penalty, and uses 92 benchmarks set by the ABA to evaluate death penalty jurisprudence.  The report found that Kentucky is in full compliance with six protocols, partial compliance with 40 and not in compliance with 26.  The team did not have sufficient information to assess compliance with 20 of the benchmarks.

Assessment team co-chair Linda Ewald, professor emeritus at Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, says that the system in Kentucky does not adequately assure that capital defendants receive fair treatment.  “The problems with the death penalty system are substantial, and need to be addressed so that we also minimize the risk of executing the innocent,” she said.

The report identified the following issues as most in need of reform:

  • Inadequate protections to guard against wrongful convictions
  • Inconsistent and disproportionate capital charging and sentencing
  • Deficiencies and inadequate funding of the capital defender system
  • Inadequacies in post-conviction review to correct error
  • Capital juror confusion
  • Imposition of a death sentence on people with mental retardation and severe mental disability
  • Overall lack of data keeping on capital charging and sentencing practices

The report recommends several measures to bring the commonwealth into compliance with ABA protocols, including state-specific measures to address the issues raised in the 438-page report.  The team is recommending a suspension of executions in the commonwealth until problematic issues are rectified.

The report notes that Kentucky has made some progress in seeking to achieve fairness and accuracy in its administration of the death penalty.  Those measures include: the establishment of a statewide capital defender to represent indigent capital defendants and death row inmates; adoption of a post-conviction DNA testing statute to minimize the risk of executing the innocent; and adoption of a racial justice act that seeks to eliminate racial and ethnic bias in application of the death penalty in the commonwealth.

The full report and executive summary are available here.

In 2003, the ABA’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, housed in the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, began several comprehensive evaluations of the death penalty, like the one conducted in Kentucky.  The ABA has examined administration of the death penalty in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.  The Project expects to release additional reports on Missouri, Texas and Virginia.  The reports have not been adopted by the ABA House of Delegates.

With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world.  As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.