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Inside Story Americas

The flaws in the US justice system

What does one death row inmate's execution, halted at the last minute, reveal about capital punishment in the US?

Last Modified: 09 May 2013 11:00
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Convicted of murdering two white students in 1994, Willie Manning was sentenced to death.

His execution was to be carried out on Tuesday evening. But at the eleventh hour, the Mississippi Supreme Court stepped in and blocked it.

There are instances when crimes are convicted and there isn’t really doubt of what happened … and [I] think it’s just outrageous that someone who‘s committed killings of 6 million, get the same sentence of someone who may have committed one homicide, or a rape or something.

Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer

The court did not give a reason for its decision, however doubts over the evidence used to convict Manning have been piling up.

The US department of justice recently sent several letters saying parts of testimonies given by two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) experts were erroneous.

The FBI has even offered to conduct DNA tests, an offer which was rejected by Mississippi's attorney general.

The case has once again raised questions over capital punishment in the US, and while 18 states have abolished the penalty, 32 have not.

From 1973 to 2012, 142 people sentenced to death have been exonerated in 26 different states.

In Texas, 12 people have been exonerated - the state that accounts for nearly one in three executions since 1976.

And 20 death row inmates have been found innocent in Illinois, where the death penalty was abolished in 2011.

Florida tops the list - where 24 people have been exonerated - that is one out of every six exonerations in the US. And in the same state, legislators are trying to pass a law that would make it more difficult for inmates to appeal their case, speeding up their road to execution. 

“When someone sits on death row for 10, 20, 30 years, it really makes a mockery of our justice system," said Republican Senator Rob Bradley. "It’s not fair to the victims’ families not only to be traumatised by the loss of a loved one, but then have to sit and suffer while justice is not realised year after year after year. This is not about guilt or innocence, it’s about timely justice.”  

Another Republican who sponsored the bill in the lower house, Matt Gaetz said: "Only God can judge. But we can sure set up the meeting."

So what does Willie Manning's case reveal about capital punishment in the US? Should death penalty still be implemented or is it a good time to stop its practice?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas, with presenter Kimberly Halkett, is joined by guests: Stephen Harper, a law professor at Florida International University and has represented many prisoners facing the death penalty; Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and a law professor at Catholic University; Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer and former US associate deputy attorney general under President Ronald Reagan; and Rob Mink,  Willie Manning's attorney.

" Well I think the only higher burden of proof can be to get rid of the death penalty, and I say that because there  been 24 people in Florida alone, who are on death thrown who were exonerated. the system that we have, the justice system, is full of imperfections … So I don't think that the death penalty can survive because the human error is just simply too great … "

- Stephen Harper, law professor at Florida International University 

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Al Jazeera
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