Commission recommends changes in death penalties

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

PHOENIX -- A state commission recommended nearly two dozen changes Tuesday in Arizona's death penalty system, including banning the execution of convicted killers under age 18.

That and other recommendations in the commission's final report -- including the creation of a statewide public defender's office -- are expected to go before lawmakers this legislative session.

Some of the panel's recommendations, such as making mentally retarded defendants ineligible for the death penalty, have already been enacted.

The 30-member commission was created in 2000 by then-Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano in response to calls for a death penalty moratorium around the country. That same year, Illinois Gov. George Ryan stopped executions in his state.

The commission studied each of the state's roughly 230 death penalty cases from 1974 to July 2000. Twenty-two people have been executed since 1992, when executions resumed in Arizona after a 29-year break.

Citing the report, Commissioner John Stookey called for a halt to executions. Stookey, a Phoenix defense attorney, said 50 percent of Arizona capital cases are reversed.

He wrote that the data alone leads him "to conclude that either the death penalty is a failed experiment in Arizona or that we must at least impose a moratorium to determine whether these flaws can be remedied."

Seven other commissioners joined Stookey in expressing serious concern that the capital punishment system in Arizona is underfunded and biased. A majority of the members, however, didn't recommended halting executions.

A spokeswoman for Napolitano, now the state's governor, said the governor felt "reassured" after reviewing the report. She said Napolitano, a death penalty supporter, is not considering a moratorium on executions.

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