196 F.Supp.2d 416 (S.D.N.Y. 2002), S3 00 CR. 761, United States v. Quinones

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
Citation196 F.Supp.2d 416
Docket NumberS3 00 CR. 761
PartiesUnited States v. Quinones

Page 416

196 F.Supp.2d 416 (S.D.N.Y. 2002)

UNITED STATES of America,

v.

Alan QUINONES, et al., Defendants.

No. S3 00 CR. 761(JSR).

United States District Court, S.D. New York.

April 25, 2002

Lee Ginsberg, Freeman Nooter & Ginsberg, New York, NY, Kevin McNally, Frankfort, KY, for Alan Quinones.

David B. Anders, Assist. U.S. Atty., Mary Jo White, U.S. Atty., New York, NY, for U.S.

OPINION AND ORDER

RAKOFF, District Judge.

The Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591-3598, serves deterrent and retributive functions, or so Congress could reasonably have concluded when it passed the Act in 1994. But despite the important goals, and undoubted popularity, of this federal act and similar state statutes, legislatures and courts have always been queasy about the possibility that an innocent person, mistakenly convicted and sentenced to death under such a statute, might be executed before he could vindicate his innocence--an event difficult to square with basic constitutional guarantees, let alone simple justice. As Justice O'Connor, concurring along with Justice Kennedy in Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 113 S.Ct. 853, 122 L.Ed.2d 203 (1993), stated: "I cannot disagree with the fundamental legal principle that executing the innocent is inconsistent with the Constitution.

Page 417

Regardless of the verbal formula employed--'contrary to contemporary standards of decency,' 'shocking to the conscience,' or offensive to a 'principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental'--the execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event." Id. at 870 (citations omitted).

To the majority in Herrera, however, as to most judges and legislators at the time (1993), the possibility that an innocent person might be executed pursuant to a death penalty statute seemed remote. Thus, Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court in Herrera, discounted as potentially unreliable a study that had concluded that 23 innocent persons were executed in the United States between 1900 and 1987. See Herrera, 113 S.Ct. at 868, n. 15. While recognizing that no system of justice is infallible, the majority in Herrera implicitly assumed that the high standard of proof and numerous procedural protections required in criminal cases, coupled with judicial review, post-conviction remedies, and, when all else failed, the possibility of executive clemency, rendered it highly unlikely that an executed person would subsequently be discovered to be innocent.

That assumption no longer seems tenable. In just the few years since Herrera, evidence has emerged that clearly indicates that, despite all the aforementioned safeguards, innocent people--mostly of color--are convicted of capital crimes they never committed, their convictions affirmed, and their collateral remedies denied, with a frequency far greater than previously supposed.

Most striking are the results obtained through the use of post-conviction testing with deoxyribonucleic acid ("DNA"). Although DNA testing is of remarkably high reliability,1 its value as a forensic tool in criminal investigations was not demonstrated until 19852 and its use in re-evaluating prior convictions was only beginning at the time Herrera was decided in 1993.3 Yet in just the few years since then, DNA testing has established the factual innocence of no fewer than 12 inmates on death row, some of whom came within days of being executed and all of whom have now been released.4 This alone strongly suggests that more than a few people have been executed in recent decades whose innocence, otherwise unapparent to either the executive or judicial branches, would have been conclusively established by DNA testing if it had been available in their cases.

Page 418

The problem, however, goes well beyond the issue of the availability of DNA testing. Indeed, the success of DNA testing in uncovering the innocence of death row defendants has itself helped spark reinvestigation of numerous other capital cases as to which DNA testing is unavailable or irrelevant but as to which other techniques can be applied. Partly as a result, in just the past decade, at least 20 additional defendants who had been duly convicted of capital crimes and were facing execution have been exonerated and released.5 Again, the inference is unmistakable that numerous innocent people have been executed whose innocence might otherwise have been similarly established, whether by newly-developed scientific techniques, newly-discovered evidence, or simply renewed attention to their cases.

Moreover, even the frequency of these recent exonerations resulting from DNA testing and from fresh attention to neglected cases hardly captures either the magnitude of the problem or how little it was recognized until recently. It was not until the year 2000, for example, that Professor James S. Liebman and his colleagues at Columbia Law School released the results of the first comprehensive study ever undertaken of modern American capital appeals (4,578 appeals between 1973 and 1995). That study, though based only on those errors judicially identified on appeal, concluded that "the overall rate of prejudicial error in the American capital punishment system" is a remarkable 68%. James S. Liebman, et al., A Broken System: Error Rates in Capital Cases (2000) at ii. No system so "persistently and systematically fraught with error," id., can warrant the kind of reliance that would justify removing the possibility of future exoneration by imposing death.

Just as there is typically no statute of limitations for first-degree murder--for the obvious reason that it would be intolerable to let a cold-blooded murderer escape justice through the mere passage of time--so too one may ask whether it is tolerable to put a time limit on when someone wrongly convicted of murder must prove his innocence or face extinction. In constitutional terms, the issue is whether--now that we know the fallibility of our system in capital cases--capital punishment is unconstitutional because it creates an undue risk that a meaningful number of innocent persons, by being put to death before the emergence of the techniques or evidence that will establish their innocence, are thereby effectively deprived of the opportunity to prove their innocence--and thus deprived of the process that is reasonably due...

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16 practice notes
  • Waiting for John Doe: the practical and constitutional implications of DNA indictments.
    • United States
    • Suffolk Journal of Trial & Appellate Advocacy Vol. 18 Nbr. 1, February - February 2013
    • February 1, 2013
    ...of limitations for such offenses. United States v. Gallaher, 624 F.3d 934, 942 (9th Cir. 2010) (citing United States v. Quinones, 196 F. Supp. 2d 416, 418 (S.D.N.Y. 2002)). For most crimes, however, the goal remains to protect individuals from defending against accusations from long in the ......
  • 205 F.Supp.2d 256 (S.D.N.Y. 2002), S3 00 CR. 761, United States v. Quinones
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • July 1, 2002
    ...of this case on the ground that the Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591-3598, is unconstitutional. United States v. Quinones, 196 F.Supp.2d 416, 420 (S.D.N.Y.2002). Because of the importance of the matter, the Court gave the Government--which now had the benefit of the Court's prel......
  • No, capital punishment is not morally required: deterrence, deontology, and the death penalty.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 58 Nbr. 3, December 2005
    • December 1, 2005
    ...Death Penalty Act unconstitutional because of high rate of error), rev 'd, 313 F.3d 49 (2d Cir. 2002); United States v. Quinones, 196 F. Supp. 2d 416, 418 (S.D.N.Y. 2002) (estimating the number of innocent defendants convicted and sentenced to death). See generally Lawrence Marshall, The In......
  • 217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.Va. 2002), 100CR00104, United States v. Church
    • United States
    • United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
    • August 19, 2002
    ...256 (S.D.N.Y.2002). Judge Rakoff previewed his decision in an earlier opinion on April 25, 2002, see United States v. Quinones, 196 F.Supp.2d 416 (S.D.N.Y.), but gave the government additional time to brief the issues before issuing his final opinion. [2] 205 F.Supp.2d at 264. [3] 196 F.Sup......
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13 cases
  • 205 F.Supp.2d 256 (S.D.N.Y. 2002), S3 00 CR. 761, United States v. Quinones
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • July 1, 2002
    ...of this case on the ground that the Federal Death Penalty Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3591-3598, is unconstitutional. United States v. Quinones, 196 F.Supp.2d 416, 420 (S.D.N.Y.2002). Because of the importance of the matter, the Court gave the Government--which now had the benefit of the Court's prel......
  • 217 F.Supp.2d 700 (W.D.Va. 2002), 100CR00104, United States v. Church
    • United States
    • United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
    • August 19, 2002
    ...256 (S.D.N.Y.2002). Judge Rakoff previewed his decision in an earlier opinion on April 25, 2002, see United States v. Quinones, 196 F.Supp.2d 416 (S.D.N.Y.), but gave the government additional time to brief the issues before issuing his final opinion. [2] 205 F.Supp.2d at 264. [3] 196 F.Sup......
  • 275 F.Supp.2d 49 (D.Mass. 2003), CR. 01-10384, United States v. Sampson
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • August 11, 2003
    ...acceptable. VII. THE FDPA IS NOT NOW UNCONSTITUTIONAL BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF EXECUTING THE INNOCENT In U.S. v. Quinones, 196 F.Supp.2d 416 (S.D.N.Y.2002) and U.S. v. Quinones, 205 F.Supp.2d 256 (S.D.N.Y.2002), Page 73 Judge Rakoff concluded that the FDPA is unconstitutional because it will ......
  • 275 F.Supp.2d 49 (D.Mass. 2003), CR. 01-10384, United States v. Sampson
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 1st Circuit United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • August 11, 2003
    ...acceptable. VII. THE FDPA IS NOT NOW UNCONSTITUTIONAL BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF EXECUTING THE INNOCENT In U.S. v. Quinones, 196 F.Supp.2d 416 (S.D.N.Y.2002) and U.S. v. Quinones, 205 F.Supp.2d 256 (S.D.N.Y.2002), Page 73 Judge Rakoff concluded that the FDPA is unconstitutional because it will ......
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3 books & journal articles

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