Lawyer group finds current death penalty unfair

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Complaining of unfairness, the American Bar Association urged a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty Monday despite opposition from its own president and the Clinton administration.
The ABA’s House of Delegates, which makes policy for the nation’s largest group of lawyers, voted 280-119.
Leaders of the 370,000-lawyer organization were told that current death-penalty systems are marred by unfairness and racial injustice.
Richmond, Va., lawyer Robert Gray told his colleagues, “As reprehensible as a capital crime is, it is equally unacceptable to administer the ultimate punishment in a racially discriminatory way.”
Another supporter, Washington lawyer Estelle Rogers, said the organization was not taking a position on the death penalty itself. Instead, she said, “We’re calling on every jurisdiction … to clean up its act.”
Neither the federal government nor any state has in place a system of capital punishment that meets the ABA’s standard of fairness, she said.
“This tells the nation that the death penalty, as it is now administered, is systemically unfair,” added New York lawyer Ron Tabak, an architect of the measure.
The resolution was approved following a 45-minute debate during which a high-ranking Clinton administration lawyer and the ABA’s current president urged defeat of the measure.
Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick voiced concern that the resolution, which becomes the focus of ABA lobbying efforts in Congress and state legislatures, would affect pending cases involving domestic terrorism.
The government has decided to seek the death penalty for two men accused in the bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building, and is considering doing so in the Unabomber case.
ABA President Lee Cooper, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer, accused the resolution’s backers of having a secret agenda.
“What you really have here is an up-or-down vote on the death penalty,” he said. “Folks, bring it in the front door. Don’t come in the back door.”
Cooper urged the ABA’s leaders “not to get out of step with the White House, the Justice Department, the nation and our membership.”
But Boston lawyer John Curtin, a former ABA president, said there was an “appalling risk” of executing innocent people. In a booming voice, he declared: “Why should we be in front? Because it is the right thing to do.”
Former Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti agreed. “If we do not stand up for the assurance of basic rights … who will?” he asked.
A report that accompanied the resolution, acted on by the 370,000-lawyer group, contended that a moratorium was needed because “efforts to forge a fair capital punishment jurisprudence have failed.”
The ABA previously had adopted policies that called for:
ùCompetent counsel for all capital defendants.
ùAvailability of federal court review of state prosecutions.
ùEfforts to eliminate racial discrimination in capital sentencing.
ùNo executions of mentally retarded defendants or those under 18.
The report accompanying the death-penalty resolution said: “Not only have the ABA’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, one that significantly curtails federal courts’ power to review capital cases from state courts and one that ended federal funding for lawyers helping death row inmates pursue appeals.