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ABA Calls for Halt to Executions

In February, 1997, by a vote of 280 to 119, representatives of the American Bar Association's House of Delegates endorsed a report calling for a nationwide suspension of executions until the judicial process is overhauled.

The report was offered jointly by the A.B.A.'s individual rights and litigation committees and was endorsed by 20 of 24 past A.B.A. presidents, though current A.B.A. president N. Lee Cooper opposed it.

"What you really have here is an up-or-down vote on the death penalty," said Cooper. "Folks, bring it in the front door. Don't come in the back door."

Proponents of the report, however, cited systemic unfairness in what former supreme court justice Harry Blackmun dubbed "the machinery of death." The A.B.A. has previously adopted policies that call for: competent counsel for all capital defendants; availability of federal court review of state prosecutions; efforts to eliminate racial discrimination in capital sentencing; and no executions of mentally retarded defendants or those under 18.

The report accompanying the resolution to halt executions says: "Not only have the A.B.A.'s existing policies generally not been implemented, but ... more critically, the federal and state governments' have been moving in a direction contrary to these policies."

The report strongly criticized two recent federal laws, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act [See: PLN Vol.7 No.8] and the move by Congress last year to stop funding the Post-Conviction Defender Organizations that have played a critical role in representing death row prisoners. De-funding the specialized death penalty defender centers effectively left hundreds of death row prisoners without legal representation, prompting many courts to appoint private attorneys to represent them pro bono [see accompanying article].

The resolution was approved after a 45 minute debate during which deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick urged defeat of the measure. Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was also harshly critical, citing the resolution as further proof that the A.B.A. has become too political and liberal.

Attorney Ron Tabak, an architect of the measure, said: "This tells the nation that the death penalty, as it is now administered, is systemically unfair." It remains to be seen what, if any, impact the resolution will have, given the strength of the pro-death penalty position among politicians. 

New York Times, Chronicle News Service

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