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

Docket Nº:S3 00 CR. 761
Citation:196 F.Supp.2d 416
Party Name:United States v. Quinones
Case Date:April 25, 2002
Court:United States District Courts, 2nd Circuit, Southern District of New York

Page 416

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



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.


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.

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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...

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