Dorit Radzin, HRW's Advocacy Associate, testifies before members of the New York State Assembly to explain why the Assembly should not reinstate the death penalty. The death penalty was halted on June 24, 2004 when the New York Court of Appeals struck down the state’s statute as unconstitutional. Across the country, studies have shown that the capital punishment system is arbitrary and unfair. The same problems afflict New York’s death penalty and the state should not continue this cruel practice.
I represent Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization based in the United States that has been documenting and exposing human rights abuses for over twenty-five years. We monitor human rights in over seventy countries around the world, including the United States, as we believe international standards of human rights apply to all people equally. Despite the freedoms that Americans enjoy and the historical strength of U.S. democracy, the human rights of people in this country are not always respected. We often research and report on abuses that occur within the U.S. criminal justice system and are particularly concerned about laws, policies, and practices that fly in the face of human rights standards.
The system of capital punishment in the United States is deeply flawed. Across the country, numerous state and national studies have identified serious problems that undermine the fairness and integrity of capital punishment. In Illinois, a 2002 bi-partisan commission released a report based on an exhaustive two-year study of the administration of the death penalty in that state. The report identifies numerous ways that error, arbitrariness, and prejudice can influence capital punishment decisions. In Texas, several organizations have recently documented the prevalence of prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate representation in the death penalty system. In Maryland in 2003, a study by the University of Maryland, commissioned by the governor, found substantial racial and geographic disparities in the administration of the death penalty. Nationwide, these flaws have contributed to death sentences being imposed on innocent people: since 1973, 117 innocent persons have been released from death row in twenty-five states, some within hours of their scheduled executions.
The capital punishment system in New York has been shown to suffer from the same unfairness and arbitrariness as other states. The Center for Law and Justice, based in Albany, found that defendants convicted of murdering white victims are more than twice as likely to face the death penalty as those convicted of murdering black victims. Furthermore, the Capital Defender Office has documented a clear geographic bias in New York’s death penalty: 65 percent of all capital prosecutions are brought upstate, even though only 20 percent of homicides occur upstate. A study at SUNY-Albany’s School of Criminal Justice found that many of the serious problems identified in Illinois also were found in New York. This study concluded by reiterating the sober warning of the Illinois commission -- that no capital punishment system, with its inherent human flaws, could ever guarantee that an innocent person would not be sentenced to death.
Human Rights Watch believes strongly that if New York reinstates the death penalty in the face of these persistent problems, it will undermine justice and erode public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system in New York.
The American public and state officials are increasingly uneasy with capital punishment. The problems that plague the application of the death penalty illustrate to jurors, as well as voters, that there is no way to be certain that an innocent person is not put to death. These fears are reflected in nationwide trends: in 1998, three hundred people were sentenced to death in the United States; in 2003, there were only 143 death sentences. Among the general public, polls have shown that support for the death penalty has declined by almost fifteen percent over the last ten years.
Yet even as the number of executions decline, the United States does damage to itself by maintaining the death penalty. The continued use of capital punishment in the United States ignores a worldwide trend against it. Since 1990, more than thirty-five countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. An additional 117 countries have either abolished the death penalty or have allowed it to fall out of practice by not carrying out an execution in the last ten years. But, in 2003, the United States, along with Iran, China, and Vietnam, carried out 84 percent of the known executions worldwide. The United States is even more isolated in the world in carrying out executions of juvenile offenders. In the last three years, the United States has executed four of the six juvenile offenders put to death worldwide. By being one of a dwindling number of countries that continue to carry out state-sponsored executions and defend the practice, the United States undermines its ability to champion democracy and human rights around the world and harms its moral leadership.
International human rights law, as codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, favors the abolition of capital punishment, even though it does not prohibit it categorically. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, however, has passed numerous resolutions affirming its opposition to the death penalty. In 2003, one such resolution stated, “[the] abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and to the progressive development of human rights.”
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. The intrinsic fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons are sometimes executed. The death penalty is inherently cruel and executions are inevitably carried out in an arbitrary manner, inflicted primarily on the most vulnerable – the poor, the mentally ill, and persons of color.
We urge the Assembly in strongest terms not to reinstate the death penalty in the state of New York.