Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), along with Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers [D-MI], Crime Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Scott [D-VA], Rep. Anthony Weiner [D-NY] , Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee [D-TX], and Ways and Means Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis [D-GA] today introduced the Effective Death Penalty Appeals Act (H.R. 3986), which would ensure that death row inmates have the opportunity to present newly discovered evidence of innocence.
Under current law, an inmate on death row can be stranded with no procedural options to appeal a conviction, even if there is compelling new evidence that he or she is innocent.
The Effective Death Penalty Appeals Act would:
(1) empower federal courts to grant habeas corpus relief for a prisoner on death row who presents newly discovered evidence that demonstrates probable innocence; and
(2) allow prisoners on death row to file successive federal habeas petitions if, and only if, they present newly discovered evidence that a panel of federal judges rules may be reasonably expected to demonstrate innocence.
If a federal court were to grant such a habeas corpus petition, the case would likely return to its original jurisdiction for retrial.
"We've got folks on death row with no opportunity to show compelling new evidence of innocence," said Johnson, Chairman of the Court and Competition Policy Subcommittee. "The status quo is inhumane and unconstitutional."
"The Effective Death Penalty Appeals Act would prevent the execution of possibly innocent people where there is new evidence of innocence," said Constitution Subcommittee Chairman Nadler. "If the death penalty remains the law of the land, then, at the very least, our legal system must never ignore evidence that could exonerate the accused. Death is different from all other penalties; it is irreversible. Those on death row must have the opportunity to bring forward all of the available evidence."
"Unfortunately, errors in death penalty cases are not discovered until after the defendant is already incarcerated," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Conyers. "In some terrible cases, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed."
"We have learned in Georgia," said Rep. Lewis, "from the injustice of cases like that of Troy Anthony Davis, where legal technicalities prohibit new, important evidence from being heard. The value of a human life overrides any inconvenience of law. We have a duty and an obligation to ensure that those who may be innocent have every opportunity to be heard."
"When it comes to a human life, the courts must always be able to take a closer look at evidence that supports claims of innocence," said Johnson. "We should never put someone to death if there are innumerable doubts or omissions."
The Effective Death Penalty Appeals Act has been endorsed by Amnesty International and the NAACP.
Why this bill matters
Two cases -- one present, one past -- demonstrate the necessity of this legislation.
Today, Troy Anthony Davis sits on death row in Georgia. He was convicted of murder in 1991, but nine of eleven eyewitnesses have subsequently recanted their testimony. Because Davis has exhausted his appeals at the state level and federal law offers him no path to relief, he is unable to present the new evidence that might exonerate him.
The Supreme Court has relied upon its original jurisdiction to order the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia to grant Mr. Davis an evidentiary hearing. However, the law in its current form does not necessarily give the District Court authority to grant Mr. Davis' habeas petition, even if they find that the new evidence supports his innocence claim.
In his opinion "In Re Troy Davis" (No. 09-1443; August 17, 2009), Supreme Court Justice Stevens wrote that the section of law to be amended by the Rep. Johnson's bill is in its present form "arguably unconstitutional to the extent it bars relief for a death row inmate who has established his innocence." Rep. Johnson's bill would amend that section to allow a prisoner on death row to present newly discovered evidence of their innocence.
In 2004, Cameron Willingham was executed by the State of Texas for the murder of his children by arson. After Willingham's conviction, a widely-respected forensics expert reviewed the case and concluded in a report that there was "no evidence of arson." The report was sent to Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles with Willingham's appeal for clemency. Willingham was executed anyway. Subsequent investigations have cast even more doubt upon the conviction. Newly discovered evidence never got the full hearing it deserved.