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Death penalty upheld by federal appeals court

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal appeals court has overruled a lower court’s decision that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected Dec. 10 a federal judge’s ruling that the Federal Death Penalty Act violates the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Federal Judge Jed Rakoff, in invalidating the death penalty law earlier this year, had written that “innocent people are sentenced to death with materially greater frequency than was previously supposed.” He noted 12 people who had been sentenced to death in state courts had been cleared by DNA evidence in the last decade.

Enforcing FDPA “not only deprives innocent people of a significant opportunity to prove their innocence, and thereby violates procedural due process, but also creates an undue risk of executing innocent people, and thereby violates substantive due process,” Rakoff wrote in his opinion.

The appeals court panel ruled, however, that a previous standard articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrates “capital punishment cannot constitute a per se violation” of due process. Three sections in the Fifth Amendment, including the due process clause, “expressly contemplate the existence of capital punishment,” the panel said.

“Most importantly, the Supreme Court has upheld state and federal statutes providing for capital punishment for over two hundred years, and it has done so despite a clear recognition of the possibility that, because our judicial system — indeed, any judicial system — is fallible, innocent people might be executed and, therefore, lose any opportunity for exoneration,” appeals court Judge Jose Cabranes wrote for the panel.

The decision is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court, according to The Washington Times.

The case involves two men, Alan Quinones and Diego Rodriguez, who were charged with murder in a drug-related killing in New York. They would face capital punishment if found guilty.

Since FDPA was enacted in 1994, only two people convicted under the law have been executed, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and drug kingpin killer Juan Garza, The Times reported. Of the 31 people convicted under FDPA, none has been discovered later to be not guilty, according to The Times. Five convictions, however, have been overturned on legal grounds, the newspaper reported.

The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution in 2000 stating that the death penalty is legitimate in cases of murder or “treasonous acts that result in death.” The resolution cited Old Testament and New Testament passages in support of capital punishment but urged its use “only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt.” It also called for the death penalty’s just application “without reference to the race, class or status of the guilty.”

The Second Circuit includes the states of Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

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