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Death Penalty Debate

June 13, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the death penalty debate we are joined by two governors, Republicans George Ryan of Illinois and Frank Keating of Oklahoma, and two United States Senators, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. Chairman Hatch, let’s start with you. What would you like to see in a bipartisan bill on this matter?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, I do think that we need to have post conviction DNA testing in order to, in order to be able to prove the innocence of people. There is no question about it. And that scientific testing is very important and its time has come. Senator Leahy has a bill. I have a bill. Both of them are important. There are some wide disparities between those two bills, but the fact of the matter is both of us are in agreement that we need post conviction DNA testing and especially in these cases where there is a potential of proving some innocence.

RAY SUAREZ: And, to be clear, the proposals that are now circulating around your committee only affect federal cases and people who face execution by the federal government?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, not necessarily. I think Senator Leahy’s bill goes farther than that and does require certain mandates on the states that I personally believe are unconstitutional under the nine recent federalism cases that the court has decided. But be that as it may, we’re going to try and work together to come up with some way of making sure that in this modern age we use the best tools at our disposal to make sure that innocent people are not only not convicted but after conviction — if they are — that there is some way of making sure that their innocence is brought out in the end.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Leahy, your bill is called the Innocence Protection Act. What is in it that goes further than Senator Hatch’s proposal?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Well, one thing it’s done is it has attracted bipartisan support — both Republicans and Democrats are joining my bill both here and in the House, both those who support the death penalty and those who oppose it. But what it’s done it’s somewhat more open–ended. As a couple of our witnesses said today that under Senator Hatch’s bill — including one person who was held for years in prison and then released when they found they had the wrong man — they would not have been able to get the relief.

That’s something that I think both of us can work out because you should not have a cutoff — if you have an innocent person on Death Row or in there for life imprisonment and you have evidence to establish the innocence, it should be available whether it’s six months after they were convicted or six years or sixteen years after they were convicted. It also does not mandate the states. It gives a significant amount of money to the states. We give hundreds of millions of dollars to the state and local criminal justice systems in this country today out of the federal treasury out of our tax dollars. It’s done to improve the criminal justice system. But I think it’s all right for us to say if we’re going to give you that money to improve the criminal justice system, then you’ve got to improve it, especially at a time when two thirds of the cases that are appealed are death penalty cases that’s found a serious error was committed in the trials.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, even though it’s more common than it used to be, isn’t DNA testing still pretty expensive?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: No. DNA is still not that expensive. I mean, DNA is the fingerprint of the 21st century. There are going to be a lot of cases, however, where there is no DNA evidence, just as there is no fingerprint evidence in a case. But when you spend millions of dollars to put somebody on Death Row, for a few hundred dollars more to make sure you’ve got the right person, I think it’s a pretty small price to pay. We should have zero tolerance for mistakes if you’re going to execute somebody.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: If I could just add a point or two.

RAY SUAREZ: Surely.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: First of all, my bill was bipartisan as well because we had two state attorneys generals offices and Democrat district attorney and all Democrats testify today in favor of my bill. The problem I have with Senator Leahy’s bill — and I hope we can work this out — we work well together and I think we might be able to do so — is that it would require testing in thousands of unnecessary cases and unnecessarily delay execution where it is justified, plus, in addition to all of that, of course, it would require testing in cases where there is no question about innocence, where the people are as guilty as can be. And I just don’t think we should go down that road, plus it is expensive. It’s expensive to keep the samples; it’s expensive to pay for the DNA testing. One person estimated today two to five thousand dollars — I think that is a little high but the fact is it is still expensive. Both of us agree when there is a real question of innocence or guilt that we ought to go the full length to make sure is that people are protected and that the full benefits of the law are given to these defendants.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn to Governor Ryan at this point, because it was his announcement earlier this year that reopened this as an issue in a lot of people’s minds. After that moratorium was declared, what did Illinois do?

GOV. GEORGE RYAN: Well, we have formed a commission headed up by former United States Senator Paul Simon, we have Scott Turow, the author; we have federal judges; we have William Webster as counsel, former director of the FBI. We have formed a commission to find out what we can do to correct the errors and to see if we in fact can come up with an error free system. Everybody has pointed out the fact that the defense counsel is a big part of the problem. That was certainly the case in Illinois, as I pointed out earlier, but the DNA, whether it’s DNA or any new technology that we can use to prove guilt or innocence, I think it’s important to use. Cost shouldn’t be a consideration when we’re talking about somebody being executed for a crime they may not have committed. That is my worst nightmare. That’s why I called the moratorium.

RAY SUAREZ: And, this commission in effect will help Illinois preserve this sanction as a viable tool? You are not looking to begin the process of ending capitol punishment in your state, are you?

GOV. GEORGE RYAN: Well, if I don’t get the answers that I need come, when this commission returns with the verdict or comes back with their decision on what we have to do, then there will be no more executions in Illinois if I’m not satisfied with all moral certainty that people with innocent.

RAY SUAREZ: Governor Keating, where do you come down on this issue?

GOV. FRANK KEATING: Well, in this debate I think my favorite color is plaid. I think when Senator Hatch and Leahy said, some of that I think is very sound and me of what Govern Ryan says is very sound but let’s put things in perspective. First, since 1977, there have been 482,000 homicides. Our citizens, 482,000 of them killed and 629 executions. That is 1/12 of one percent of the killings resulting in executions, so it’s very rare. On the race side since 1977, nearly 60 percent of the executions have been white. In 1998, alone, 70 percent of whose those executed were white. Third, I think Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Hatch’s approach in the carrot sense would be a better approach — where we as states are encouraged to have indigent defense systems that makes the decision as to who is going to get counsel and who will have their cases checked with DNA

That’s something that we did in Oklahoma so an independent board, the Indigent Defense Board, without interference by the prosecution can decide that this particular case needs DNA testing and that system also will assure there is competent defense counsel. But, again, capital punishment is very, very rare and I happen to thing in most case it is works very well. But in those cases that it simply doesn’t work well we want to make sure that the innocent are and the innocent alone are on the street and the guilty and the guilty alone are in prison, much less executed.

RAY SUAREZ: So, if it’s applicable you are all for widening the availability of DNA testing. What about Senator Patrick Leahy’s concern about beefing up the quality of counsel available to people accused in capital crimes?

GOV. FRANK KEATING: Well, I read the Chicago Tribune story and I’m certainly familiar with what occurred in Chicago in Illinois itself. Obviously we cannot tolerate incompetency as defense attorneys because we’re dealing with the life of individuals and we certainly can’t tolerate corruption in the criminal justice process on the side of the prosecution or law enforcement. And tough sanctions need to be taken. Prosecutions and disbarment and the like — if there isn’t enough of that we ought to do more but my experience and I have arrested people as an FBI agent — and I have prosecuted them as a state prosecutor and U.S. attorney and supervised their lock-up and supervised most of the federal law enforcement agencies — I have never seen this. So, it was a stunning surprise to me that you have judges, defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, everybody basically putting up their feet and looking out the window; I have not seen it. But if it does occur in one case that’s one case too many.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Governor Ryan, earlier this year Jeb Bush of Florida said that in his view Illinois had a unique problem with administering capital punishment. Does the recent Columbia study convince you that maybe it’s not so unique?

GOV. GEORGE RYAN: Well, I don’t know about other states, and I was surprised at the magnitude of the numbers of the Columbia study, but I do know that we had a very serious problem in Illinois, and I couldn’t go ahead with the death penalty in good conscience until it was studied to see if, in fact, it could be corrected.

RAY SUAREZ: And how long till the commission report?

GOV. GEORGE RYAN: I didn’t give them a deadline. I said go do what you have to do and come back and tell me what you’ve got.

RAY SUAREZ: And Senators, a similar question. When might we see some form of similar legislation that your 99 colleagues could vote on?

SEN. ORRIN HATCH: Well, if we can get together, Pat and I and others and work on this together, I believe we could get a piece of legislation that would pass everybody. On that Columbia study, first of all, I think it’s very flawed. They did not cite one case where an innocent person was executed. Secondly, many of the reversals were done in the sentencing phase where they made the mistakes there, and thirdly, you know, instead of — I would have to say the report — report of old cases from 1973-1995. We’ve come a long way since then so I think the study is extremely flawed.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Actually, I don’t think the study is flawed a bit, and I think one of the reasons why so many of the major news media from right to left have supported it so far, they know it is a good study but if you want to know how this could be passed — we have been in the Congress by every analysis has been one that has not accomplished a great deal. This is one we could accomplish. I would make this suggestion: If both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush said this is going that goes beyond politics. That is a matter of improving the credible of the criminal justice system in this great nation. If both supported it, both endorsed it this would go through this Congress. It would pass very easily and the president would sign it and it would be a good thing for America.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Leahy, some of your critics have said your proposals are a stalking horse for abolitionists — beginning the process that may end capital punishment.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: But we’ve heard an awful lot of things said about it that aren’t so, Senator Hatch suggested it is going to require DNA testing any time anybody asks for it. It does not a bit. The post conviction requires certain hurdles somebody has to go through. We’ve heard about the terrible cost. In California it cost $5 million to put somebody on Death Row. A couple of hundred dollars more to test DNA is going to break the bank? I doubt it. If you put somebody in prison for life it’s $35,000-50,000 a year to be there. A couple of hundred dollars more to do DNA testing. These are kind of red herrings. The bottom line is is this country going to have a criminal justice system with credibility? If we don’t, you are going to reach a point where nobody is going to be convicted even if they are guilty as sin because people are not going to trust the system.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me go back to the governors. Do either of you sense a change in the national sentiment — the sentiment in your own cities and states about this issue? Governor Ryan.

GOV. GEORGE RYAN: Well, I think people are more cautious about the system than they were prior to our moratorium and I think there is more concern and a spotlight put on it. I don’t know of anybody that wants to put an innocent person to death. And I think everybody is concerned about that and they want to make sure that the criminal justice system works for everybody not the wealthy but for everybody and I think that’s what we have to be concerned about.

RAY SUAREZ: Governor Keating?

GOV. FRANK KEATING: Well, if an innocent person is in prison or executed, the guilty person is on the street able to strike again. And nobody wants to do that. What we need to do is work in partnership to find the best solution and to focus on the essential fact that only the guilty should be punished, only the guilty should be executed. But it should the not be used as stalking horse for abolishment of the death penalty itself.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you to you all.