WASHINGTON – When Congress returns from its summer recess, among the issues it will have to tackle is whether to change the federal court appeals process for death row prisoners.
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Challenges are being made about whether such appeals needlessly delay executions at the expense of taxpayers or whether they are a vital last line of defense for possibly wrongly convicted murderers.
Some conservative Republicans want to speed up executions of convicted murders by reducing the number of appeals.
"You ought not to have an unlimited number of appeals, and it ought to be required to be done within a reasonable period of time, and it ought to go to the question of actual innocence," said Rep. Dan Lungren (search), R-Calif.
Congress has tried to limit appeals before. A 1996 law tightened rules for death penalty appeals, but those appeals have nearly doubled since then, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, topping out at 19,000 in 2003 before declining slightly. Consideration of these appeals delays execution.
"It's not fair to the victims of crime that these cases should take so long," said Sen. Jon Kyl (search), R-Ariz.
Some death row appeals have lasted more than two decades. The average time from conviction to execution, however, is between 11 and 12 years.
"I heard some other member of Congress in our committee argue against my efforts in this regard and said, 'What's the problem? These people are sitting on death row. There's no problem, they're not going anywhere.' Well, the problem is is to the family of those who've been killed. Why should they have to suffer?" Lungren asked.
Lungren and Kyl have introduced legislation that would allow only one federal death penalty appeal per case. Convicted murders in capital cases would retain the full range of state court appeals.
Critics like law professor Stephen Saltzburg say federal appeals based on new evidence or scientific review of existing evidence have led to reversals of death sentences.
"The advances that we have in terms of DNA have reminded us that a rush to execution means that innocent people may, in fact, be executed," said Saltzburg, a council member on the Criminal Justice and Litigation Sections of the American Bar Association.
Critics also argue that the state courts can make mistakes, and federal review is the best safeguard against wrongful execution.
"The fact that we take time doesn't mean that our system is broken, it means that our system works according to American values. Speeding up executions and denying people the opportunity to present constitutional claims is hardly, you know, the way in which most people like to think about the Constitution," Saltzburg said.
The bill is on a bit of a legislative fast track. The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on it in mid- to late-September.