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Martha W. Barnett, president of the American Bar Association, hesitates for just a second when asked her position on the death penalty. “I guess I’m a reluctant supporter,” she says. “I’m certainly not an abolitionist. I’m not a proponent. … There have been circumstances where there’s been an execution and I’ve thought, if you’re going to have a death penalty, this is an appropriate situation.” She mentions Ted Bundy, a serial killer executed in her home state of Florida in 1989. News reports at the time linked Bundy to the deaths or disappearances of more than 40 young women. “He was probably every woman’s nightmare,” says Barnett. “Handsome, smart and totally without moral character.” But there’s one thing Barnett is absolutely clear on, and that’s what she calls the increasing evidence that the death penalty is not administered fairly. ‘CALL TO ACTION’ That belief brought her to Atlanta this week to convene an ABA program, “Call to Action: A Moratorium on Executions.” The invitation-only program, starting today at the Carter Center, urges that executions be stopped until procedures used in capital cases conform to the basic principles of due process, equal protection, fairness and reliability. Barnett, a partner in Holland & Knight’s Tallahassee office, says the ABA has never taken a stand in favor of or against the death penalty per se, although it does oppose executing those who are mentally ill or were juveniles when they committed the crime. The ABA has taken policy positions on the death penalty’s implementation and administration for at least 20 years, she says. Three years ago, the ABA called for a moratorium. The moratorium and today’s conference and national call to action were prompted by incremental factors, says Barnett. Not the least was her realization that the ABA needed to put a stronger voice behind a policy it has held for years. She mentions Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th and 14th Amendments when applied selectively to minorities. Since Furman, Barnett says, 38 states have re-enacted the death penalty, and empirical data show significant problems with the fairness of the process as it relates to minorities and others. A variety of studies have shown, she says, that “it’s often a matter of where you are, who you are and what your race is whether you get the death penalty or not.” Also, she adds, recent use of DNA evidence has shown that some on death row are innocent. FOUR MAJOR PROBLEMS Barnett cites four major problem areas that the conference will address: � A lack of competent counsel to represent those facing capital punishment; � Insufficient funding for counsel, driven in part by federal budget cuts to death penalty resource centers; � How race and geography play into sentences; and � A need to guarantee due process and equal protection. The conference’s scheduled speakers include New York University law professor Anthony G. Amsterdam; Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights; former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, now the vice-chairwoman of the Carter Center; and Illinois Gov. George H. Ryan. GEORGIA SITUATION In Georgia, the issue of the appropriateness of the death penalty in one case was before the state supreme court as recently as August. The court stayed the execution of Alexander Williams, convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a teenaged girl in Augusta when he was just 17. His attorneys argued, among other things, that he was underage, psychotic — a point his trial lawyer did not raise — and that the electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment. Palmer Singleton, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, a group that opposes capital punishment, says the Williams case is likely to prompt legislative consideration of mental impairments in the execution process. Other questions that deserve consideration, he adds, include, “Do we want to be the last nation that executes kids?” Also, Singleton says, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes has called for the state supreme court to appoint a commission on indigent defense. Although the issue is broader than just the death penalty, it goes to the core problem of inadequate representation for poor people, he says. Although the ABA conference is not open to the public, lawyers and others interested in getting materials from the meeting may call Katy Englehart at the ABA in Chicago at 312-988-5134.

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