Passage of the Innocence Protection Act in the closing days of the 108th Congress was a watershed moment. To be sure, the bill that finally became law was a shadow of the more ambitious criminal justice reforms first championed five years earlier by Senator Pat Leahy, Congressman Bill Delahunt and others. But the enactment of legislation designed to strengthen — not weaken — procedural protections for death row inmates was rich in symbolic importance and promise.
Writing in the April 2001 issue of THE CHAMPION (Innocence Protection Act: Death Penalty Reform on the Horizon), I said optimistically: "The criminal justice pendulum may be swinging back in the direction of fairness. The Innocence Protection Act of 2001, introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives earlier this year, promises meaningful reforms in the administration of capital punishment in the United States." Four years later I'd claim that prediction was fairly accurate. While the reforms in the final bill are not as meaningful as I and others had hoped, the pendulum clearly swung. (Title IV of Public Law 108-405, Justice for All Act.)
The IPA marks a dramatic departure from 25 years of congressional debate on the death penalty. Soon after the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, proposals emerged to restore the federal death penalty. In 1986, the Reagan Administration unsuccessfully urged the U.S. Sentencing Commission to promulgate guidelines for federal capital punishment. In 1988, as part of an omnibus anti-drug bill, Congress reauthorized the federal death penalty for certain drug-related murders. The 1994 crime bill signed by President Clinton authorized a death sentence for over 50 new and existing federal crimes.
The Innocence Protection Act of 2004: A Small Step Forward and a Framework for Larger Reforms, 29 The Champion 28 (March 2005)
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