Feds pull rules to fast-track death penalty cases Read more: http://www.sfgate.

Started by Michael, December 28, 2010, 03:14:24 PM

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Michael

With prodding from a Bay Area judge, the Obama administration has quietly withdrawn regulations by President George W. Bush's Justice Department that would have helped California and other states put their death penalty cases on a fast track in federal courts.

The change, authorized by Congress in 1996 but never implemented, was intended to compress a federal review process that can last anywhere from two years to a decade or more.

Death penalty appeals in California now typically take 20 to 25 years to resolve. Most of that time is spent in state court waiting for trial court records to be prepared, appeals lawyers to be appointed, and a badly backlogged California Supreme Court to rule.

But proceedings can also be lengthy in federal courts. The last inmate executed in California, Clarence Ray Allen, was put to death in January 2006 after more than 23 years of appeals - 17 of which were in federal court.

Condemned prisoners also fare much better before lifetime-appointed federal judges than before state judges. Federal courts overturn about two-thirds of the California death sentences they consider, compared with the state Supreme Court's reversal rate of less than 10 percent.
'Preposterously long'

Fast-track rules would not change federal courts' standards for reviewing capital cases, but an advocate for speedups says there's a connection between the slow pace of review and the high reversal rate.

"The way they do things now is preposterously long," said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the conservative Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in Sacramento. "What a federal (judge) is supposed to be doing is very limited ... to see if the (sentencing) decision is reasonable. That doesn't take very long if you do it right."

But Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C., and an opponent of capital punishment, said revelations about wrongfully convicted prisoners on death row show that this is no time for a speedup.
Shifting the load

San Francisco attorney Michael Laurence, whose Habeas Corpus Resource Center successfully challenged the Bush administration regulations, said California has failed to provide enough funding or lawyers for death cases in state court and has shifted the workload to federal courts.

Fast-track rules would convert federal courts in California to "death penalty courts," with little time for other cases, Laurence said.

The fast-track system was authorized by Congress and President Bill Clinton in 1996 as part of a law designed to limit federal court review of state criminal cases, especially capital cases.

It would allow states to speed up federal review of death sentences if they have adequate procedures for appointing and paying lawyers to represent condemned prisoners.

Prisoners in those states would have six months, half their current deadline, to file a federal appeal known as a writ of habeas corpus, which typically includes claims of incompetent legal representation, jury misconduct or newly discovered evidence.

Federal judges would then have 15 months to rule, and a federal appeals court would have a four-month deadline after receiving all written arguments.
States found lacking

The 1996 law let federal judges decide whether states qualified for fast-track, and the answer was uniformly no.

California's application was denied in 2000 by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on the grounds that the state had only advisory guidelines, and no binding rules, for appointing defense lawyers.

Laurence, who argued against the state, said federal judges in related cases also cited California's lengthy delays - now as long as 10 years - in finding lawyers for the low-paid and difficult assignments.

In 2005, a Republican-controlled Congress voted to bypass the judges and authorize the U.S. attorney general to review the state's procedures, subject to final approval by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., which has a conservative majority. But the change has never taken effect.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey proposed regulations to implement the new system in December 2008, the Bush administration's final month. But in submitting the rules for public comment, he left out their most important provision - that they would allow each state, rather than federal courts, to decide whether its own procedures for choosing and paying defense lawyers were adequate.
Change up to Obama

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland cited that omission in blocking the regulations in January 2009, leaving the fast-track law in the hands of the new Obama administration.

Last month, without fanfare, the Justice Department withdrew Mukasey's rules and said it would submit its own plan for Attorney General Eric Holder to evaluate the state's standards. It did not announce a timetable.

Scheidegger, of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, was indignant. He argued that the 2005 law gives states the power to bypass Holder and ask the appeals court in Washington for fast-track authority.

"A speedup that Congress put in place 14 years ago still hasn't been implemented," Scheidegger said.

Laurence, of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, said the argument was both legally unfounded and pointless.

Considering the complexity of death penalty cases and the inadequacy of review at the state level, he said, even if fast-track took effect, "I don't see it possibly working. They can't be resolved any faster than now."

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/12/26/BAIB1GRDGJ.DTL
I´m not sure if there´s a hell, but I believe in executed murderers.

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