FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 11, 1999

"As we enter a new millennium, time for us to look into the mirror"

WASHINGTON, D.C.– U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) has called for the end to the federal death penalty in the United States. Feingold introduced a bill to abolish the federal death penalty and called on all states that impose the death penalty to cease the practice. He said that as the United Nations nears a vote on the death penalty and the 20th century draws to a close, it is time for America to leave the death penalty behind and take a hard look at its justice system, one that adds to a culture of violence and killing.

 "Let us step away from the culture of violence and restore fairness and integrity to our criminal justice system," said Feingold. "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. We are one of the first nations to speak out against torture and killings by foreign governments. It is time for us to look in the mirror. At the end of 1999, as we enter a new millennium, our society is still far from fully just. The continued use of the death penalty demeans us. The death penalty is at odds with our best traditions. It is wrong and it is immoral. The adage ‘two wrongs do not make a right' could not be more appropriate here."

Feingold outlined several concerns he has with both the philosophy underlying the death penalty as well as the way the death penalty is currently administered:

The use of the death penalty by the United States stands in stark contrast to the majority of nations that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has called for a worldwide moratorium on the use of the death penalty. And soon, Italy and other European nations are expected to introduce a resolution in the UN General Assembly calling for a worldwide moratorium. The European Union bans membership in the Union to nations that use the death penalty.

He reminded his Senate colleagues that the United States is one of only six nations that imposes the death penalty for crimes committed by children. The others are Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, Pakistan and Iran. In the last two years, the United States was the only nation in the world to put to death people who were minors when they committed their crimes. "Is this the kind of company we want to keep?" Feingold asked. "Is this the kind of world leader we want to be?"

Feingold said he's not so sure that government doesn't contribute to a casual attitude sometimes seen toward killing and death. "With each new death penalty statute enacted and each execution carried out, our executive, judicial and legislative branches, at both the state and federal level, add to a culture of violence and killing," he said. "With each person executed, we're teaching our children that the way to settle scores is through violence, even to the point of taking a human life."

The use of the death penalty at the state and federal level is often not consistent with principles of due process, fairness and justice. Innocent people have been put on death row. Since the modern death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s, 79 men and women have been released from death row because they were innocent. That amounts to one death row inmate proven innocent for every seven executed. "That's a pretty poor performance for American justice," Feingold charged. "A wrong conviction means that the real killer may have gotten away. The real killer may still be on the loose and a threat to society. What an injustice that the victims' loved ones cannot rest because the killer is still not caught. What an injustice that an innocent man or woman has to spend even one day in jail. What a staggering injustice that innocent people are sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit. What a disgrace when we carry out those sentences, actually taking the lives of innocent people in the name of justice."

Additionally, states that have the death penalty are more likely to put people to death for killing white victims than for killing black victims. And there are a disproportionate number of minorities on death row. At the federal level, 21 people have been sentenced to death. Of those 21 defendants, 14 are black, one is Hispanic and another Asian. That means 16 of the 21 people on federal death row are minorities. In 1997, the American Bar Association called for a death penalty moratorium because it found that the application of the death penalty raises fairness and due process concerns. In large part because of concerns over due process and fairness, death penalty moratoriums have been considered by the legislatures of at least ten states over the last several months.

Feingold said the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime. The federal government and most states in the U.S. have a death penalty, while our European counterparts do not. Yet the murder rate in the U.S. is six times higher than the murder rate in Britain, seven times higher than in France, five times higher than in Australia, and five times higher than in Sweden. Feingold also noted that the majority of the nation's police chiefs do not believe the death penalty is an effective law enforcement tool, according to a 1995 Hart Research poll. When asked to rank the various factors in reducing crime, police chiefs ranked the death penalty last. Rather, the police chiefs cited reducing drug abuse as the primary factor in reducing crime, along with a better economy and jobs, simplifying court rules, longer prison sentences, more police officers, and reducing the number of guns.

Feingold continued: "Let me be clear, I believe murderers and other violent offenders should be severely punished. I'm not seeking to open the prison doors and let murderers come rushing out into our communities. I don't want to free them. The question is: should the death penalty be a means of punishment in our society."

Feingold said he vividly recalls the first involuntary execution that followed the Supreme Court's Gregg decision in 1976. It was May 25, 1979 and "I had just finished my last law school exam that morning," he told his colleagues. "Later that day, I recall turning on the television and watching the news report that Florida had just executed John Spenkelink. I was overcome with a sickening feeling. Here I was, fresh out of law school and firm in my belief that our legal system was advancing through the latter quarter of the twentieth century. Instead, to my great dismay, I was witnessing a throwback to the electric chair, the gallows and the routine executions of our nation's earlier history.

"I haven't forgotten that experience or what I thought and felt on that day. At the end of 1999, at the end of a remarkable century and millennium of progress, I cannot help but believe that our progress has been tarnished with our nation's not only continuing, but increasing the use of the death penalty."

As of November 10, 1999, the United States has executed 584 people since the reinstatement of the death penalty in1976. In those 23 years, there has been a sharp rise in the number of executions. This year the United States has already set a record for the most executions in our country in one year since 1976 - 84 people.

"This is astounding and it is embarrassing," said Feingold.

Feingold today called for renewed public debate about the death penalty. "What has happened to our nation's sense of striving to do what we know to be the right thing? Those who favor the death penalty should be pressed to explain why fallible human beings should presume to use the power of the state to extinguish the life of a fellow human being on our collective behalf. Those who oppose the death penalty should demand that explanation adamantly, and at every turn."

Death Penalty Issues
Truth in Justice