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Sen. Leahy: Innocence Protection Act 'Not a Partisan Issue'

Aired June 7, 2000 - 1:19 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Death penalty opponents, some of whom used to be death penalty supporters, now cite the death row inmates who have gone free in recent years because new evidence showed they didn't do it. The state of Illinois, you may recall, has stopped executions outright pending a top down review of the judicial system in that state. Much of the exculpatory evidence is DNA. And today on Capitol Hill, two senators introduced legislation aimed at stopping bad prosecutions before they lead to bad convictions.

One of those senators is Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. He joins us from the capitol Hill.

Welcome, senator.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Good to be with you.

WATERS: This is just about a particular kind of crime and it concerns DNA. Why don't you tell us about what the Innocence Protection Act is all about?

LEAHY: Basically, this is legislation that has brought together both people who favor the death penalty and those who oppose it to say that if you're going to have capital cases where people get the death penalty or life imprisonment or serious crimes, they should have available everything to them. There should be -- if DNA is there, that should be available to them because DNA is really the fingerprints of the 21st century. And they should also have competent counsel. The idea being to maintain, among other things, to maintain the credibility of the criminal justice system. We've seen too many people get convicted, put on death row, and then you find out: Whoops, got the wrong person here.

It means two things: one, you run a very real risk of executing the wrong; but, secondly, the real person, the real murderer is out scot-free.

WATERS: You try to get this bill introduced four months ago, it didn't happen, were there arguments against it then?

LEAHY: No, I think we were trying to build some knowledge of this, to get both Republicans and Democrats -- I don't want this to be a partisan issue. And in the House, they have introduced the same legislation with a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat joining together to show that it is not a partisan issue. This is something that makes good criminal justice sense.

I was a prosecutor. I prosecuted a lot of murder cases. I got convictions in all those murder cases. But I also knew that if you made a mistake, it was a terrible injustice. And secondly, if you had incompetent counsel on the other side, some day, five or six years later, you are going to have to retry that case, and that's almost impossible.

WATERS: At first blush, this sounds like it might be an expensive bill; is it?

LEAHY: It will be a little bit expensive in one sense. If the DNA is available to get the DNA test, and also of course it would cost more if you have assigned counsel to get competent assigned counsel, rather than somebody who sort of hangs around in a phone booth outside the courtroom.

But, in the long run, it is going to save money. It costs a great deal of money in the appeals and what not to question whether you have competent counsel. It certainly costs an absolute fortune if you find you have got the wrong person there. So, in the long run save money, it will save money.

And the most important thing it will do, it will bring back the kind of credibility to the criminal justice system which is now being diminished. Over half the people in this country in a poll say they don't fully trust the criminal justice system in capital cases because of all the mistakes that had been made in the past.

WATERS: Some might think that an inmate would use this as another delaying tactic.

LEAHY: I suspect some may try to do that. As you know, most people who go to prison, they will tell me immediately, I am innocent, even though you might have had photographs of them committing the crime and everything else. But they are not going to be able to delay that much. They are going to be able to say: If there's DNA evidence, I want it available. Well, they should have it available. In the last century, if there was fingerprint evidence available, you always made it available to both sides. This DNA is the fingerprint of the 21st century. Make it available.

But by the same token, if somebody wants to say: I want that because it is going to prove me innocent, they better be very careful that they really are innocent. Because it could take away that claim that they like to make that they are innocence because it could very well show: Yes, we got the right guy here.

WATERS: The death penalty is going to be a big issue in the presidential campaign. "Time" and "Newsweek" both this week on the Bush -- the first Bush decision to grant a reprieve in Texas to a death row inmate.

Do you have any sign from either Gore or Bush about this bill or about members of Congress. Does this look likely to happen? LEAHY: Well, if Vice President Gore and Governor Bush both endorse it, I think it would go sailing through the House and the Senate because most people know that it is basically the right thing to do.

I have tried to keep it out of being any kind of election year thing. And that's one of the reasons why we're encouraging both Republicans and Democrats to join on it. I would like to talk with Governor Bush and Vice President Gore about it. I know that they both indicated their willingness to accept the basic premise of it. I would like to see them join, possibly join, and say: Let's just take this out of any presidential politics, let's both endorse the bill. And I still think that's a possibility.

WATERS: All right, Senator Patrick Leahy, we'll follow along. Thanks so much for joining us this afternoon.

LEAHY: Good seeing all of you last week in Atlanta.

WATERS: It was wonderful that you could make the trip down here for that.

LEAHY: Thank you.

WATERS: Senator Patrick Leahy.

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