Amnesty International today called on the Governor of the southern US state of Alabama to commute the death sentence of a man who is due to be executed on 16 June.
Eddie Duval Powell, a 41-year-old African-American, was sentenced to death in 1998 for the rape and murder of a 70-year-old white woman near Tuscaloosa, Alabama three years earlier.
His appeal lawyers have claimed he has a mental disability that would render the execution unconstitutional while questions have also been raised over possible racial discrimination.
“Alabama’s Governor should spare Eddie Powell’s life. The power of executive clemency is not constrained in the same way the courts are and he should take this opportunity,” said Susan Lee, Americas Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“There is no doubt that Eddie Powell has been convicted of a serious crime, but given the irrevocable nature of the death penalty, the authorities should surely err on the side of caution when the constitutionality of an execution has been questioned in this way.”
Four years after Eddie Powell was sent to death row, the US Supreme Court ruled that the execution of prisoners with “mental retardation” was unconstitutional.
A clinical psychologist recently found that Eddie Powell has “mild mental retardation”. In his childhood, Powell had been placed in special-education classes from the age of 10.
US courts have dismissed a claim by Eddie Powell’s appeal lawyers on these grounds, without holding an evidentiary hearing on the claim.
His lawyers have lodged a new appeal asking the Alabama Supreme Court to order a hearing and are also seeking clemency from the state’s Governor.
However, they failed in a 2010 attempt to have the US Supreme Court take the case, which included claims that racial discrimination had played a role in the jury selection and trial. Out of 29 African-Americans in the original jury pool, only one ended up on the jury, along with 11 white jurors. The jury voted by 11 to one to recommend that Eddie Powell be put to death. Studies of the USA’s capital justice system have consistently indicated that race plays a role in the death penalty, in particular that a death sentence is more likely when the murder victim is white.
The USA has executed 1,254 people since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1977.
Blacks and whites are the victims of murder in approximately equal numbers in the USA, but in nearly 80 per cent of the cases that have ended in execution since 1977, the crimes involved white murder victims. The state of Alabama has carried out 52 executions – in 86 per cent of these cases the victim was white.
Amnesty International unconditionally opposes the death penalty in all cases worldwide.
There have been 20 executions in the USA so far this year.