High court questions Md. on death penalty process State told to defend effort to speed execution of condemned prisoners

September 20, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court told the state of Maryland yesterday to offer a legal defense of its effort to speed the execution of death row prisoners -- an effort the state is pressing in four federal courts.

Showing an interest in a test case involving five inmates, the court asked for the views of the state attorney general on whether prisoners could sue the state and in doing so continue for several years their court challenges to convictions and sentences.

The state has 30 days to react to the inmates' appeal.

Then, the justices will decide whether to rule on the case, which is shaping up as a major test of a new federal law designed to shorten markedly the time between an inmate's sentence and execution.

A federal appeals court blocked the five inmates' lawsuit this year. The appeals court said that allowing the lawsuit to continue would interfere with the state's 11th Amendment right not to be sued without its consent.

Supreme Court's first move

The inmates have taken the dispute to the Supreme Court, and yesterday's brief action seeking the state's response was the justices' first move on it.

Lawyers for the state and the inmates indicated they had not received official word of the action.

The lawsuit claims that Maryland is not entitled to take advantage of the year-old federal law's accelerated deadlines and other restrictions on inmates' federal court requests for new trials or new sentencing.

Before any state may invoke those restrictions, it must prove it has a system in place for providing free and professionally competent lawyers to handle the death penalty challenges of inmates.

Maryland insists it satisfies that condition, and contends that several of the state's 16 death row inmates should now be found to have used up their last appeals, permitting their execution.

Possible impact on 5 inmates

If the state prevails, the first impact would be on some, if not all, of the five inmates involved in the Supreme Court case: Wesley Eugene Baker, John Marvin Booth, Kenneth Lloyd Collins, Tyrone Delano Gilliam Jr. and Steven Howard Oken.

This week, the state offered in another court a full defense of its system of supplying free lawyers to death row inmates, and claimed again it is entitled to accelerate its death penalty procedures.

'Very generous allowance'

In a brief filed in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals answering a separate appeal from Tyrone Gilliam, state lawyers said Maryland provides "very generous allowance for appointment of counsel" to handle death row inmates' court cases.

No inmate under death sentence in the state has ever pursued a court challenge without a lawyer, it argued.

It also contended that the fees it pays -- $31,500 for the first two court challenges an inmate makes -- clearly have been high enough to make it possible to recruit competent lawyers.

Pub Date: 9/20/97

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