A seemingly innocuous change in Maryland regulations proposed by the state public defender's office could frustrate efforts to speed death penalty appeals, according to the attorney general's office.
Opponents of the rule change contend that it is a backdoor attempt to use the regulatory process to frustrate the clear intent of the General Assembly.
The May 31 proposal from public defender Stephen E. Harris will come up for a hearing June 24 before the General Assembly's Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee.
It will run into opposition in the committee from death penalty advocates such as Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican, who said he heard about the proposal after it was spotted by an assistant attorney general.
"It's my sense that the AELR Committee will want a full and complete public hearing on any changes in the language regarding the death penalty, and particularly if it appears to be a backdoor attempt to slow up the death penalty appeal process," he said.
McCabe noted that the Assembly recently passed a measure to speed that process, which now can drag for more than a decade.
Repeated calls to Harris were not returned.
For the Office of Public Defender, an agency that provides representation to defendants who can't afford a lawyer, slowing the appeals process would be desirable. It could postpone executions for years while defendants get more chances to have a sentence or conviction overturned.
The attorney general's office generally takes the opposite side, arguing to uphold death sentences in the appellate courts.
The proposal would eliminate a rule originated by a previous public defender setting forth minimum qualifications for outside attorneys who are hired to handle death penalty appeals.
That regulation requires that such lawyers have participated in at least two capital cases or 10 cases where the maximum penalty was 10 years or more in prison.
The only explanation filed with the proposed change was a statement that "this action is necessitated because the existing provision is impermissibly vague."
The catch, according to Assistant Attorney General Gary Bair, is that eliminating the rule could exclude Maryland from certain provisions of the recently signed federal anti-terrorism bill designed to speed death penalty appeals.
Those provisions limit appeals from Death Row inmates in states that meet certain criteria. One of those criteria is that a state have a rule setting standards of competency for lawyers handling death penalty appeals. That is the rule the public defender proposes to abolish.
"By removing it, it would definitely take away any argument we'd have that it does satisfy the federal law," Bair said.
Pub Date: 6/18/96