Legal and legislative challenges to death penalty in the USA

By Julia Collings
May 22, 2009

Worldwide vigils were held this week for Troy Davis, a death row prisoner in Georgia, USA, widely believed to be innocent, who is still trying to get a court to hear evidence which could prove his innocence and has been collected collected since his original trial 18 years ago.

His final hope for a new hearing rests with the US Supreme Court and a petition was filed there this week. Meanwhile, a stay of execution, issued in October 2008, has now expired and an execution date could be set at any time.

Earlier in May 2009, Davis said: "I have faced execution and the torment of saying goodbye to my family three times in the last two years and I may experience that trauma yet again; I would not wish this on my worst enemy and to know I am innocent only compounds the injustice I am facing."

Davis was convicted of the murder of a police officer in 1989 but seven out of nine of the original witnesses have since recanted or changed their testimony. No physical evidence links him to the crime.

"This is one in a long line of cases in the USA that should give even ardent supporters of the death penalty pause for thought, since it provides further evidence of the danger, inherent in the death penalty, of irrevocable error," said Amnesty International's USA researcher Rob Freer.

"Last month a federal judge said that to execute Troy Davis would be 'unconscionable'. She was surely right."

Amnesty International has a range of campaign materials, including a letter designed for members of the clergy to sign and send to Georgia’s Governor, Sonny Perdue.

Also this week, the Texas Senate Committee votes on ‘The Kenneth Foster Jr Act’, which would end execution for people convicted under the Law of Parties (people who didn't actually kill anyone themselves, but “should have anticipated” a murder by someone they were with and prevented it).

The bill was renamed after Kenneth Foster who was originally sentenced to death in 1997 under the Law of Parties, along with the man who actually committed the murder. Foster's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment just six hours before his scheduled execution. The other man was executed on July 19 2006.

Texas has carried out 437 executions since 1976 - 14 of these in 2009 and almost 200 under the current governor, Rick Perry. An Amnesty International report at the end of last month, called "Too much cruelty, too little clemency", noted that Governor Perry “rarely exercised his power of reprieve, or used his authority to seek commutation of a death sentence, and continues to advocate strongly for capital punishment”.

Since 1977, the United States has executed over 1,100 people and there have been 24 executions this year. There are currently around 3,300 men and women on death row across the country.

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