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The American Medical Association’s 550-member House of Delegates on Tuesday rejected in a voice vote in Chicago a resolution that would have called for a nationwide moratorium on executions. In contrast, for years now, the American Bar Association has urged a nationwide death penalty moratorium until steps are taken to ensure that innocent people are not being executed. And earlier this year, Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions until procedural “fairness” can be ensured, while other legal groups and political leaders have considered similar positions or steps in recent months. But observers of the growing anti-death penalty movement, like Locke Bowman, legal director of Chicago’s McArthur Justice Center, typically noted that the AMA membership simply saw capital punishment as more of a legal than a medical issue — and opted not to get involved. Dr. Jonathan Weisbuch, the author of the defeated resolution, insisted afterward that capital punishment ought to be treated as a public health issue, too. “The flaws of our criminal justice system clearly” are putting “innocent people at risk of injury,” whether the penalty imposed on convicted individuals involves “20 years in prison or execution.” Weisbuch’s comments during the AMA’s annual convention were in apparent reference to a recently released study suggesting a 68 percent error rate in death penalty cases nationally. In Illinois, Ryan’s moratorium came in the wake of the belated exoneration of 13 convicted inmates who had served at least some time on death row. The Phoenix, Ariz., physician’s efforts did not go entirely for naught. The AMA delegates representing the group’s 300,000 members nationwide went on to “overwhelmingly” approve by voice vote an amended version of Weisbuch’s resolution that called for the “availability and use of all appropriate medical and forensic techniques in the criminal justice system.” Only two days earlier, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, had unveiled the Criminal Justice Integrity and Law Enforcement Assistance Act. This proposed legislation would authorize post-conviction DNA testing in federal cases and encourage the States, through a new DNA grant program, to authorize post-conviction testing in state cases. Additionally, the Hatch bill would provide needed resources to help states analyze DNA evidence from crime scenes, convicted offenders and conduct post-conviction testing. Meanwhile in Illinois, a similar DNA preservation bill has been sitting on the Gov. Ryan’s desk since mid-April, waiting for his “yea or nay.” Both Houses of the Illinois General Assembly have approved House Bill 4953, which mandates custodians of crime scene evidence that could be used for DNA testing to keep the evidence safe and secure until an appropriate length of time has passed or a court has authorized its destruction. Said Bowman. “It should have been signed weeks ago,” he noted. “But there seems to be objections” from the Illinois law enforcement community. “It’s astounding because it seems such an obvious need,” Bowman said. Ryan’s chief spokesman on the death penalty issue could not be immediately reached for comment.

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