Wednesday, 2 July 2008
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The criminal justice system in the U.S. state of Alabama needs to be improved to ensure that no innocent people are executed but officials there seem indifferent to the problem, a U.N. envoy said on Monday.
A U.S. official, however, rejected the envoy's views.
Alabama has the highest U.S. per-capita rate of executions, which was the reason Philip Alston, U.N. Human Rights Council special envoy on executions, went there during an official visit to the United States. He also went to Texas, which has the highest number of executions and prisoners on death row.
Speaking to reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York, Alston said a number of officials in Texas acknowledged that innocent people might have been executed and expressed a desire to improve their criminal justice system.
"In Alabama, the situation remains highly problematic," he said. "Government officials seem strikingly indifferent to the risk of executing innocent people and have a range of standard responses, most of which are characterized by a refusal to engage with the facts."
The reality, he said, is that the system is not designed to produce cases of innocence.
"It is entirely possible that Alabama has already executed innocent people, but officials rather deny than confront flaws in the criminal justice system," Alston said.
Richard Grenell, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, rejected the conclusions of Alston, an Australian who teaches law at New York University.
"We know our system isn't perfect but we afford everyone the presumption of innocence and due process," he said. "Mr. Alston's sweeping judgments of our system after briefly visiting two out of 50 states show his personal dislike of the system we have, not fundamental problems with it."
According to Alston, a major problem is that in Alabama, elected judges have the right to change jury decisions on sentencing. Most changes in sentences are from life sentences to the death penalty, he said.
He added that the judges there appeared to be under political pressure to execute criminals.
"Alabama should relieve judges of this invidious role by repealing the law permitting judicial override," Alston said. "Instead juries should be permitted to play their historical role of protecting individual rights."
People in and out of government in both Alabama and Texas acknowledged the need for improved programs to provide criminal defense lawyers for people who cannot afford them, but only half-measures in both states were being discussed, he said.
There were some positive moves in Texas, however, which he said were "a step in the right direction."
Studies across the United States suggest racial disparities in the use of the death penalty. Alston said he raised the issue of racism and executions with federal and state officials but "was met with indifference or flat denial."
On the subject of the U.S. military prison on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Alston said all proceedings against detainees there under the Military Commissions Act -- suspected terrorists labeled "alien unlawful enemy combatants" -- should be discontinued.
"All trials should respect due process standards under international human rights and humanitarian law," he said, adding that the United States has an obligation to provide fair trials with "all essential judicial guarantees."
He also spoke about Afghanistan. He praised the United States and other countries whose forces are active there, saying he found no evidence of "widespread intentional killings in violation of human rights or humanitarian law."
(Editing by Eric Walsh)