UN report critical of Alabama death penalty

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UN report critical of Alabama death penalty

Post  Scouse on Fri Jul 04, 2008 6:38 pm

BIRMINGHAM --- A United Nations report described Alabama's death penalty system as being so flawed that the state may have executed an innocent person, but the state's top prosecutor dismissed that criticism.

A report by special investigator Philip Alston at the U.N.'s Human Rights Council alleges that Alabama judges convert life sentences to death sentences for purely political reasons. It also charged that condemned inmates have inadequate legal representation.

"It is entirely possible that Alabama has already executed innocent people," Alston stated in the report released Monday.

Alston, an Australian who is a law professor at New York University, visited the state before writing his report. He also said in the findings that state officials "would rather deny than confront flaws in the criminal justice system."

Alabama Attorney General Troy King accused the U.N. of pushing an ideological agenda and said he doesn't believe judges impose the death penalty for political reasons.

"The United Nations has grievous injustices in its own building that it ought to address before it begins worrying about a speck in the eye of a state like Alabama," King told The Birmingham News.

In death penalty cases, an Alabama jury recommends life without parole or execution, but the sentencing judge isn't bound by that recommendation. An appeal is automatic.

"I don't think there are judges who say, 'I'm going to give this person the death sentence because I'm getting ready to stand for election,'" King said. "That is a serious allegation, and I don't believe it."

Alston concluded that elected judges in Alabama feel compelled to change life sentences to death to ensure re-election, not because they believe the jury erred.

"Given the key role of the jury in American justice, it is difficult to justify giving officials who will be held to account for their stance on the death penalty every four years the power to substitute their own individual opinions for those of the 12-member jury," Alston wrote.

King said judges are more qualified than juries to determine whether a death sentence is appropriate, and there is no evidence that they feel politically pressured to override life sentences and impose lethal injection.

Alston also argued that condemned inmates are inadequately represented on appeal. Alabama is the only state that does not guarantee counsel after the first round of appeals.

King said death row inmates typically are represented by lawyers from big firms with more resources than prosecutors.

"The fact that you're not seeing a lot of these sentences reversed is not because they don't have good lawyers, it's because they're guilty," he said.
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