Legal ‘Sacred Cows’ Must Go
Chicago, IL (November 4, 1999) -- The nation’s preeminent criminal defense bar association today said that, short of abolition of the death penalty or a moratorium on executions, proposed reforms to Illinois’ capital punishment system must include implementation of new procedural safeguards aimed specifically at police and prosecutors in order to avoid further wrongful convictions.
At a press conference in Chicago, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) announced that Illinois is to be commended for recognizing the need for reform in light of the record number of death row inmates later to have been found innocent. NACDL acknowledged that recently adopted measures to substantially increase defense funding are a meaningful step in the right direction.
However, the Association noted that investigation into the causes of the dozen wrongful capital convictions has clearly shown that major reforms of practices by the police and prosecutors are required to ensure that more innocent people are not sentenced to die in Illinois.
“It is time to expose and speak truthfully about the ‘sacred cows’ in the criminal justice system,” said NACDL president William Moffitt. “These falsehoods include the belief that jailhouse informants always tell the truth, that an innocent person would not give a false confession and that eyewitnesses are never mistaken. If the twelve Illinois exonerations have taught us any lesson, they are that jail house informants often lie, that innocent people--especially if coerced or threatened by police -- do confess crimes they did not commit, and that eyewitness testimony is more often mistaken than we tend to believe.”
Moffitt said that the accused, particularly in death cases, must be protected from abusive and unconstitutional practices by police and prosecutors through the implementation of specific procedural safeguards. “It is simply good government to have a justice system that provides the people of Illinois with these protections,” he said.
NACDL’s recommendations include:
- Eliminating ‘single witness identification’ -- As was demonstrated in the Anthony Porter case, a single eyewitness’ testimony is too unreliable to be the basis of a death sentence. In a case in which identity rests primarily on the testimony of one eyewitness, the death penalty should not be an option.
- Requiring reliability hearings for government informants -- Case after case in Illinois, including the case of the Ford Heights Four, has demonstrated that there is every reason to doubt the word of jailhouse informants who have endless opportunity and motive to implicate others. Illinois would be well-served by following the example of Oklahoma and allowing jailhouse informant testimony in death penalty cases only after the trial court holds a hearing to decide a number of questions that are critical to a threshold determination that the testimony is sufficiently reliable to be presented at trial. Such questions include: whether the informant has received or will receive anything in exchange for testifying; whether the informant has testified or offered evidence in other cases and any benefit there received; the manner in which the statement from the accused was obtained; and the informant’s criminal history.
- Requiring videotaping of all interrogations -- False confessions of guilt are often the result of physical abuse, coercion or other unlawful police practices. Sadly, Illinois has also produced wrongful convictions in cases where police officers simply fabricated a claim that the accused confessed. In order to reach a just verdict, juries must be able to evaluate the truthfulness and reliability of such statements. The best way to do this is through videotaping of interrogations so that jurors can see and hear a videotape of the interrogation process leading up to the confession and the confession itself. The death penalty should not be an option if the interrogation and confession is not videotaped.
Moffitt noted that the spate of wrongful convictions in Illinois and the current lack of effective procedural safeguards calls into question the validity of the death penalty in cases that are on appeal and in post-conviction status. “We urge the Illinois state legislature to consider the absence of fairness and reliability that unquestionably resulted in twelve wrongful capital convictions before considering whether any executions should go forward,” he said.
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