Leahy’s death penalty reform bill goes to Senate floor

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(Host) Death penalty reform legislation sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the future of the measure is uncertain because opponents of the bill may launch a filibuster on the Senate floor.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) As Congress works toward completing action on a number of key bills before it takes its summer recess at the beginning of August, it’s possible that so-called death penalty reform legislation will be considered in both the House and the Senate.

The bills are designed to make it easier for defendants and convicted offenders to prove their innocence when they are facing the death penalty. The legislation calls on states to preserve DNA evidence, it allows defendants to request a review of this evidence and it requires competent legal representation in capital cases.

Late last week the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its approval to the bill by a vote of 12 to 7. Senator Patrick Leahy, who is the chairman of the Judiciary committee, says the measure is now ready for debate on the Senate floor:

(Leahy) “The death penalty system does not work today. There have been a whole lot of mistakes, there have been a lot of innocent people who have been on death row. We have to assume a number of people have been executed who are innocent. So you have two things that are immediately wrong: One, if you have innocent people on death row and secondly, whoever committed the crime is still out there free to commit more crimes. If you going to lock somebody up, you want to certain you’ve got the right person.”

(Kinzel) The legislation does face some opposition in the Senate primarily from Republican members who are considering a filibuster over the bill. Because the Senate is on a tight schedule before its August recess, a filibuster would most likely delay consideration of the bill until the Fall. Leahy is working to convince his colleagues to support the bill:

(Leahy) “When you have the one-hundred-first person in just a few years released from death row because they had the wrong person; when in Illinois you had a number of people who were released from death row, some who were within days of being executed; when they said, ‘Oops, sorry we made a mistake,’ I think people get worried about it. I think even those who are the strongest advocates of the death penalty feel that there should be zero tolerance for mistakes.”

(Kinzel) Leahy says two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have highlighted attention to this issue. The first ruling prohibits the execution of mentally retarded people and the second requires juries and not judges to hand down a death sentence.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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