A U.N. Special Investigator is criticizing the application of the death penalty in the United States, saying it sometimes leads to miscarriages of justice. The expert, Philip Alston, calls for the United States to enact more stringent safeguards to protect the innocent. Philip Alston submitted a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Special Investigator Philip Alston is not calling for the United States to end capital punishment. But, he urges the government to make sure the imposition of the death penalty complies with fundamental due process requirements.
"It is widely acknowledged that innocent people have most likely been executed in the U.S," said Philip Alston. "Yet, in Alabama and Texas, the two States that I visited, I found a shocking lack of urgency about the need to reform criminal-justice system flaws."
Alston says the U.S. Congress should enact legislation permitting a review of state and federal death penalty cases.
The U.N. Special Investigator also criticizes the U.S. military and intelligence operations for a lack of transparency and accountability in relation to civilian casualties. He says targeted killings carried out by drone attacks on the territory of other countries are increasingly common and remain deeply troubling.
"The government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranked soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible under the doctrine of command responsibility," he said. "Worse, it has effectively created a zone of impunity for private contractors and civilian agents by only rarely investigating and prosecuting them."
Acting Deputy Chief at the U.S. Mission in Geneva Lawrence Richter says he accepts Alston's observations on the need for safeguards in serious cases of capital punishment. But, he adds the U.S. system already has robust safeguards in place.
"For example, if the death penalty were disproportionate to the severity of the underlying offense, it could be challenged under the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as being cruel and unusual punishment," said Lawrence Richter. "We fully share Professor Alston's concerns about the need to address the issue of wrongful convictions, and indeed the U.S. government has made this a priority. We are one of only five countries in the world that belong to the Innocence Network, a group of countries that are working to embrace modern forensic science and reforms to prevent wrongful convictions."
Richter says Alston has gone too far in his criticisms of Washington in regard to its actions in the military sphere. He says the United States does not believe military and intelligence operations during armed conflict fall within the Special Investigator's mandate.