Death Penalty Fixes

The possibility that innocent people might be executed is driving efforts to reform capital punishment. In early July, that risk led a US district court judge in New York to strike down the federal death penalty. He cited the exoneration of 32 state death-row inmates since 1993.

The Bush administration is expected to appeal the ruling.

Concern about killing the innocent has led to reform legislation in Congress. A bill being marked up in the Senate, the Innocence Protection Act, essentially has two parts: making DNA testing available to more prisoners, and providing defendants in capital cases with better lawyers.

Both are good ideas. DNA comparisons have led to a dozen death penalty reversals, and the technique should be at hand in cases where it could determine guilt or innocence. The Senate bill would require the procedure to be available in federal cases, and in state cases when a state's DNA lab receives federal funding.

One cautionary note: Courts would have to be tough-minded about when DNA testing is crucial, to avoid wholesale applications for such tests from inmates or defendants. Otherwise, laboratories could be swamped and justice slowed.

The other facet of the bill, better legal representation, entails a national commission to set standards. Federal law enforcement funds would be used as a lever to get states to adopt the standards. Well-publicized examples of grossly inadequate counsel underscore the need for this reform.

Federal legislation in this area should, however, leave states freedom of action to pursue their own reforms, which are under way in many parts of the country.

The bill has strong backing in Congress, reflecting the public's growing awareness of problems inherent in the death-penalty system. In some form, it's likely to become law, adding to the momentum to reshape that system and make it less subject to abuse.

But no amount of reform can solve the problems with capital punishment. The ultimate solution is to end a penalty that allows no margin for error and perpetuates an archaic "eye for an eye" concept of justice.

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