UN rights expert calls on United States to ensure death penalty is applied fairly
The United States should take immediate steps to ensure that the death penalty is applied fairly and justly in states where it is practised, a United Nations human rights expert said today, voicing particular concern that officials in the state of Alabama “seem strikingly indifferent to the risk of executing innocent people.”
Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, also called for the country’s military justice system to be improved so that victims of possibly unlawful killings can receive justice.
In a preliminary statement issued after completing an official visit to the US, where he met with federal and state officials, judges and civil society groups in Washington, DC, New York, Alabama and Texas, Mr. Alston said he was disturbed by how authorities in Alabama and Texas had responded to recognized flaws in their systems.
“When we are talking about a situation in which innocent people have probably been executed, you would expect a greater sense of urgency about reforming the criminal justice system,” he said.
“In Texas, there is at least significant recognition that reforms are needed,” Mr. Alston said, noting that in Alabama officials give a range of standard responses to criticisms, “most of which are characterized by a refusal to engage with the facts.
“The reality is that the system is simply not designed to turn up cases of innocence, however compelling they might be. It is entirely possible that Alabama has already executed innocent people, but officials would rather deny than confront flaws in the criminal justice system.”
Since 1973, 129 people across the US have been exonerated while waiting on death row and this number continues to grow, according to Mr. Alston.
He called for a multi-pronged strategy to reform the criminal justice systems in Alabama and Texas, starting with the immediate tackling of problems such as judicial independence and the lack of an adequate right to counsel.
Partisan elections for judges have placed them under popular pressure to impose and uphold death sentences whenever possible, the Special Rapporteur said.
“Yet the role of the judiciary is to ensure that justice is done in individual cases and to avoid the execution of innocent persons. It is not to ensure that the popular will prevails over other considerations.”
He called on the US Congress to enact laws that would allow federal courts to review all issues in state and federal death penalty cases on their merits, and he also criticized Texas for failing to review the cases of foreign nationals on its death row who have been deprived of the right to consular assistance from their home countries.
Turning to Guantánamo Bay, Mr. Alston called on the US Government to release the results of investigations and autopsies into the death of five detainees who died in 2006 and 2007.
The text of the Military Commissions Act, under which six “alien unlawful enemy combatants” at Guantánamo Bay are being tried, “indicate clearly that these trials utterly fail to meet the basic due process standards required for a fair trial under international humanitarian and human rights law.”
Access to counsel has been severely limited, second- and third-hand hearsay evidence can be used, the prosecution can withhold evidence from the accused, and the defence’s ability to obtain witnesses is restricted.
Any death sentence imposed as a result of such trials would clearly violate international law, Mr. Alston said.
He also urged the Government to publish information on civilian casualties resulting from its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and to make it possible for US citizens and ordinary Afghans and Iraqis to follow the workings of the military justice system.
“As it stands, following a case through the military justice system is remarkably difficult, and outside observers have no basis upon which to conclude that the system is in fact operating fairly.”
Although some steps have been taken to ensure accountability for killings carried out by private military contractors, more needs to be done, the Special Rapporteur added.
“It’s the Department of Justice’s job to prosecute private security contractors who commit unlawful killings, but it has done next to nothing.”
Mr. Alston, who serves in an unpaid and independent capacity, will report on his findings to the UN Human Rights Council later this year.