Statement by WI Sen. Russell Feingold from Congressional Record for
Abolish the Federal Death Penalty
By Russ Feingold
Monday 24 January 2005
Statement on Introduction of the Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act
Mr. President, today I introduce the Federal Death Penalty
Abolition Act of 2005. This bill would abolish the death penalty
at the Federal level. It would put an immediate halt to executions
and forbid the imposition of the death penalty as a sentence for
violations of Federal law.
Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme
Court, there have been almost 1,000 executions across the country,
including three at the Federal level. At the same time, over 100
people on death row were later found innocent and released from
death row. Exonerated inmates are not only removed from death row,
but they are usually released from prison altogether. Apparently,
these people never should have been convicted in the first place.
While death penalty proponents claim that the death penalty is
fair, efficient, and a deterrent, the fact remains that our
criminal justice system has failed and has resulted in at least
117 very grave mistakes.
Nine hundred and forty-four executions, and 117 exonerations in
the modern death penalty era. That is an embarrassing statistic,
one that should have us all questioning the use of capital
punishment in this country. And we continue to learn about more
cases in which our justice system has failed. Since I first
introduced this bill in November of 1999, 36 death row inmates
have been exonerated throughout the country, 12 since I introduced
this bill in the last Congress in February 2003. Since I last
introduced this bill, 115 people have been executed nationwide.
How many innocents are among them? We may never know.
While executions continue and the death row population grows, the
national debate on the death penalty intensifies and has become
even more vigorous. The number of voices joining in to express
doubt about the use of capital punishment in America is growing.
As evidence of the flaws in our system mounts, it has created an
awareness that has not escaped the attention of the American
people. Layer after layer of confidence in the death penalty
system has been gradually peeling away, and the voices of those
questioning its fairness are growing louder and louder. Now they
can be heard from college campuses and courtrooms and podiums
across the Nation, to the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room,
to the Supreme Court. We must not ignore them.
That our modern society relies on killing as punishment is
disturbing enough. Even more disturbing, however, is that our
States' and Federal Government's use of the death penalty is often
not consistent with principles of due process, fairness, and
justice. These principles are the foundation of our criminal
justice system. It is clearer than ever before that we have put
innocent people on death row. In addition, statistics show that
those States that have the death penalty are more likely to put
people to death for killing white victims than for killing black
After the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in
1976, the Federal Government first resumed death penalty
prosecutions after enactment of a 1988 Federal law that provided
for the death penalty for murder in the course of a drug-kingpin
conspiracy. The Federal death penalty was then expanded
significantly in 1994, when the omnibus crime bill allowed its use
to apply to a total of some 60 Federal offenses. Since 1994,
Federal prosecutions seeking the death penalty have now
A survey on the Federal death penalty system from 1988 to early
2000 was released by the U.S. Department of Justice in September
2000. That report showed troubling racial and geographic
disparities in the Federal Government's administration of the
death penalty. In other words, who lives and who dies in the
Federal system appears to relate to the color of the defendant's
skin or the region of the country where the defendant is
prosecuted. Attorney General Janet Reno was so disturbed by the
results of that report that she ordered a further, in-depth study
of the results. Attorney General John Ashcroft pledged to continue
that study, but we still await the results of that further study.
The Federal Government must do all that it can to ensure that no
person is ever subject to harsher penalties because of the color
of the defendant's skin.
I am certain that not one of my colleagues here in the Senate, not
a single one, would defend racial discrimination in this ultimate
punishment. The most fundamental guarantee of our Constitution is
equal justice under law, and equal protection of the laws. Yet we
have a system in place today that raises grave questions about
whether that guarantee is being met.
While the Federal death penalty system is clearly plagued by
flaws, there are 38 States across our Nation that also authorize
the use of capital punishment. And like the Federal system, those
systems are not free from error.
Five years ago, Governor George Ryan took the historic step of
placing a moratorium on executions in Illinois and creating an
independent, blue ribbon commission to review the State's death
penalty system. The Commission conducted an extensive study of the
death penalty in Illinois and released a report with 85
recommendations for reform of the death penalty system. The
Commission concluded that the death penalty system is not fair,
and that the risk of executing the innocent is alarmingly real.
Governor Ryan later pardoned four death row inmates and commuted
the sentences of all remaining Illinois death row inmates to life
in prison before he left office in January 2003:
Illinois is not alone. Four years ago, then Governor Parris
Glendening learned of suspected racial disparities in the
administration of the death penalty in Maryland. Governor
Glendening did not look the other way. He commissioned the
University of Maryland to conduct the most exhaustive study of
Maryland's application of the death penalty in history. Then faced
with the rapid approach of a scheduled execution, Governor
Glendening acknowledged that it was unacceptable to allow
executions to take place while the study he had ordered was not
yet complete. So, in May 2002, he placed a moratorium on
executions. Unfortunately, Governor Bob Ehrlich later lifted that
moratorium and executions have resumed in Maryland.
The Maryland study was released in January 2003, and the findings
should startle us all. The study found that blacks accused of
killing whites are simply more likely to receive a death sentence
than blacks who kill blacks, or than white killers. According to
the report, black offenders who kill whites are four times as
likely to be sentenced to death as blacks who kill blacks, and
twice as likely to get a death sentence as whites who kill whites.
Maryland and Illinois are not exceptions to a rule, nor anomalies
in an otherwise perfect system. In fact, since reinstatement of
the modern death penalty, 81 percent of capital cases across the
country have involved white victims, even though only 50 percent
of murder victims are white. Nationwide, more than half of the
death row inmates are African Americans or Hispanic Americans.
There is evidence of racial disparities, inadequate counsel,
prosecutorial misconduct, and false scientific evidence in death
penalty systems across the country. While the research done in
Maryland and Illinois has yielded shocking results, there are 36
other States that authorize the use of the death penalty, most of
them far more frequently. Twenty of the 38 States that authorize
capital punishment have executed more inmates than Maryland, and
14 of those States have carried out more executions than Illinois.
So while we are closer to uncovering the unthinkable truth about
the flaws in the Maryland and Illinois death penalty systems,
there are 36 other States with systems that are most likely
plagued with the same flaws. And yet, the killing continues.
At the beginning of 2005, I cannot help but believe that our
progress has been tarnished by our Nation's not only continuing,
but increasing use of the death penalty. We are a Nation that
prides itself on the fundamental principles of justice, liberty,
equality and due process. We are a Nation that scrutinizes the
human rights records of other nations. Historically, we are one of
the first nations to speak out against torture and killings by
foreign governments. We should hold our own system of justice to
the highest standard.
Over the last few years, some prominent voices in our country have
done just that. And they are not just voices of liberals, or of
the faith community. They are the voices of Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor, Reverend Pat Robertson, George Will, former FBI Director
William Sessions, Republican Governor George Ryan, and Democratic
Governor Parris Glendening. The voices of those questioning our
application of the death penalty are growing in number, and they
are growing louder.
And while we examine the flaws in our death penalty system, we
cannot help but note that our use of the death penalty stands in
stark contrast to the majority of nations, which have abolished
the death penalty in law or practice. There are now 117 countries
that have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. The
European Union denies membership in the alliance to those nations
that use the death penalty. In fact, it passed a resolution
calling for the immediate and unconditional global abolition of
the death penalty, and it specifically called on all States within
the United States to abolish the death penalty. This is
significant because it reflects the unanimous view of a group of
nations with which the United States enjoys the closest of
relationships and shares the deepest common values.
What is even more troubling in the international context is that
the United States is now one of only five countries that imposes
the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles. So, while a
May 2002 Gallup poll found that 69 percent of Americans oppose the
death penalty for those under the age of 18, we are one of only
five nations on this earth that puts to death people who were
under 18 years of age when they committed their crimes. The others
are Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, and Saudi
Arabia. In the last decade, the United States has executed more
juvenile offenders than all other nations combined.
These are countries that we often criticize for human rights
abuses. We should remove any basis for charges that human rights
violations are taking place on our own soil by halting the
execution of people who were not even adults when they committed
the crimes for which they were sentenced to die. No one can
reasonably argue that executing child offenders is a normal or
acceptable practice in the world community. And I do not think
that we should be proud that the United States is the world leader
in the execution of child offenders.
As we begin a new year and another Congress, our society is still
far from fully just. The continued use of the death penalty shames
us. The penalty is at odds with our best traditions. It is wrong
and it is immoral. The adage ``two wrongs do not make a right,''
applies here in the most fundamental way. Our Nation has long ago
done away with other barbaric punishments like whipping and
cutting off the ears of criminals. Just as our Nation did away
with these punishments as contrary to our humanity and ideals, it
is time to abolish the death penalty as we seek justice in this
new century. And it is not just a matter of morality. The
continued viability of our justice system as a truly just system
that deserves the respect of our own people and the world requires
that we do so. Our Nation's striving to remain the leading
defender of freedom, liberty and equality demands that we do so.
Abolishing the death penalty will not be an easy task. It will
take patience, persistence, and courage. As we work to move
forward in a rapidly changing world, let us leave this archaic
I ask my colleagues to join me in taking the first step in
abolishing the death penalty in our great Nation. I also call on
each State that authorizes the use of the death penalty to cease
this practice. Let us step away from the culture of violence and
restore fairness and integrity to our criminal justice system.
I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in