News Release

"Consistency of the direction of the change" brings hope for abolition of death penalty

NACDL encouraged by decision outlawing execution of mentally retarded 

Washington, DC (June 20, 2002) -- The words with which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself, barring execution of the mentally retarded today, have the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers waiting for the logical extension of the ruling.

"Internationally, the ''consistency of the direction of the change'' has been there a long time," said Schwartz, referring to the words of Justice John Paul Stevens in the majority opinion, "but the United States is on the tail end of the movement. The willingness of the Supreme Court to reverse its judgment offers reason to be optimistic that its logic will lead to further restrictions on the death penalty, and eventually to its abolition."

Justice Stevens indicated that the steady stream of states outlawing execution of the mentally retarded influenced the majority as the Court reversed its earlier precedent and held that evolving standards now make such executions "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment. "That same logic should move the Court toward barring all executions," said Schwartz, a criminal defense lawyer from Seattle.

"The death penalty will fall for three reasons," Schwartz predicted: "First, the system is too flawed to be fixed. More than 100 persons have been exonerated from death row since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s. We have so many flaws in the capital punishment system that we can't possibly truly believe that we don't execute innocent people.

"Second, we cannot afford the cost of executing people--not only in human terms, but financially. Studies indicate that the capital system costs $2 million to $3 million more per defendant that life without parole.

"Finally, we're out of step with all of the other Western nations, and continued capital punishment will interfere with our national security and law enforcement needs. France and Germany balked at providing evidence on Moussaoui for that reason. Canada, Mexico, and other nations have refused to extradite people to the U.S. unless they are assured that the defendants will not face the death penalty.

"In the courts, in state legislatures and in public forums, the death penalty is under ever greater challenge. It is only a matter of how soon it is eliminated, and we pledge to continue battling it to the end."

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The case is Atkins v. Virginia, No. 00-8452. 

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NACDL Communications Department

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.