By Julian Navarro
Current and former elected prosecutors, attorneys general, U.S. attorneys and Dept. of Justice officials and law enforcement leaders – under the banner of “Fair and Justice Prosecution” – said this week they are opposed to the “application” of the federal death penalty and are calling a suspension of pending executions, and the grant of clemency by Pres. Trump.
They said they believe that the federal death penalty is flawed and needs an appropriate solution which includes the emphasis on clemency for members awaiting execution.
“Case after case has revealed that our nation’s long experiment with the death penalty has failed. The process is broken, implicates systemic racism and constitutional concerns, and distinguishes our country from many other democratic nations in the world. If ever there were a time to revisit this practice, that time is now,” they wrote.
The group cites the reason for this failure has to do with systemic racism and constitutional concerns, and how this differentiates our country from others, adding that for more than 40 years many have tried to fix America’s death penalty by making it fair but many have failed. Instead of trying to fix the death penalty, they believe the practice should be discontinued.
Fair and Justice Prosecution states that “the death penalty raises serious concerns in tension with the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishments and the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law…it is unequally and arbitrarily applied, ineffective in improving public safety, and a waste of taxpayer resources. Most importantly eliminates the dangers of risking the execution of an innocent person.”
In addition, they believe that “we have not executed the worst of the worst, but often instead put to death the unluckiest of the unlucky –the impoverished, the poorly represented, and the most broken. Time and again, we have executed individuals with long histories of debilitating mental illness, childhoods marred by unspeakable physical and mental abuse, and intellectual disabilities that have prevented them from leading independent adult lives.
“We have executed individuals with trial lawyers so derelict in their duties and obligations that they never bothered to uncover long histories of illness and trauma. We have also likely executed the innocent.”
The group notes that race plays a role in the application of the death penalty, citing studies showing defendants of color are more likely to be sentenced to die especially if the victim is white. People of color account for a disproportionate 43 percent of executions in the U.S. since 1976, and 55 percent of defendants currently awaiting execution are people of color.
The prosecutors further cite statistics showing that since 1976, 21 white defendants were executed for crimes against a Black victim but in the same time period, 296 Black defendants were executed for crimes against a white victim, indicating that a “trend of systemic racism throughout our criminal justice system.”
The “federal government should not ignore these issues in the best of times, but these concerns are especially acute in the midst of a global pandemic and calls for racial justice that have led to an ever-deepening erosion of trust in government and our criminal legal system,” Fair and Justice Prosecution suggests.
COVID-19 also exacerbates the problem, they claim:
“During the Covid-19 epidemic if we rush through executions it can implicate the 6th Amendment right to counsel concern. It is impossible for attorneys to effectively represent their clients during this time, either in clemency or in their motions to stay or reverse the sentence of death.
“There are many things that attorneys must do in the weeks and days leading up to an execution, including investigating last minute leads…making decisions about what proceedings to file and in what court, selecting the facts to highlight in petitions for clemency, and deciding whose voices to elevate in those petitions and in supporting affidavits.
“Right now, attorneys cannot visit those awaiting execution, making it extremely difficult to consult with their client about legal or factual strategies. Indeed, some counsel are suffering from illness themselves. At a time when the country is struggling through a deadly pandemic, spending scarce resources to carry out federal executions and forcing defense lawyers to risk their lives to defend clients on death row is simply unthinkable.”
They also argue that the use of the death penalty by the U.S. differentiates the U.S. from many other democratic nations such as Germany and Italy who have abolished the death penalty: “Abolition of the death penalty was part of how these nations said, “never again” to atrocity and oppression – and it is time for our nation to revisit its place in this history.”
Fair and Justice Prosecution concludes that these are just some of the reasons to support clemency for those individuals that the “Department of Justice is wanting to execute over the coming two months that remain in this administration.”
Alternately, the group recommends life imprisonment without parole because it would be the sentence “these individuals would receive if the President grants clemency…(it) is an extreme punishment, commensurate with the most egregious of crimes. It protects public safety and can adequately vindicate society’s interest in punishing even the most serious wrongdoing. Failing to grant clemency and rushing forward with executions in the midst of a pandemic, and in the waning days of this administration, will undermine public trust and thus compromise public safety.”
“As current and former elected prosecutors, Attorneys General, and law enforcement leaders, and former United States Attorneys and Department of Justice officials who have been empowered with promoting safe communities, we know our tasks become increasingly difficult when people do not believe that the legal system is operating fairly.
“Public safety is inextricably tied to the community’s trust in the fairness and moral authority of our justice system. When people believe the state is executing a person, or applying the death penalty, unjustly –as do many in our nation who oppose the death penalty in increasing numbers–their trust in our system of government and law enforcement is undermined. Our jobs get harder, as do the jobs of others who seek to keep our communities safe,” they said.
Fair and Justice Prosecution called on President Trump to “set an example by showing mercy and converting the pending death sentences into sentences of life in prison without the opportunity for parole. Granting clemency will not only help restore public trust in the legal system, but will also show the public that compassion is never the wrong choice. “
For a full list of signers – click here.
Julian Navarro is a senior at Sacramento State majoring in Criminal Justice. He is from Half Moon Bay, California.
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