Too-swift justice Death penalty appeals: Innocents will die under new federal law Maryland seeks to invoke.

September 28, 1997

AMERICANS EASILY forget that our judicial system is based on the premise that it is more important to protect the innocent than to punish the guilty. The demand to speed up the death penalty appeals process is a prime example.

We have no doubt most Marylanders approve of the state's effort to invoke a new federal law that drastically shortens the time inmates have to file ''habeas corpus'' appeals in federal court, and which may hasten the execution of several notorious criminals.

But it is likely that innocent people will die under this law.

The notion that all death penalty appeals are groundless is false. Since 1976, mistakes have been found in 40 percent of the cases appealed to federal courts. More than a few involve outright incompetence and/or abuse, such as that of a Missouri convict sentenced to die in 1980s for killing a fellow inmate; his lawyers overlooked witnesses and a videotape showing he was in the cafeteria at the time of the crime. Local courts, often with elected judges, can be subject to local political pressures. Federal appeals are a necessary check.

Indeed, the Founding Fathers considered the writ of habeas corpus, rooted in English common law, so crucial they included it in the Constitution. Basically, it says authorities must consider a prisoner's claim that he has been wrongfully jailed. The new law weakens this protection of individual liberty, not just for death penalty inmates, but for everyone accused of a crime. It says the issue is no longer whether your constitutional rights were violated, but whether the state courts made reasonable efforts to follow federal laws.

As for death penalty inmates, the law gives inmates only six months from the state appeals court's ruling -- a period in which they must also prepare for a second state review -- to file a habeaus corpus appeal. This limit is conditional on whether states have a system for providing lawyers trained in death penalty appeals. Maryland says it does, but it is hard to see how. Lawyers appointed to handle death penalty cases are paid less than their overhead, so attorneys are not lining up to get this work. And because death penalty cases are rare, appointees typically know little about how to pursue a federal appeal.

Maryland has expedited its appeals system with changes that do not diminish inmates' rights. But delay is important in the death penalty process. It is the price we pay for protecting the innocent under a Constitution that guards the rights of all, even the guilty.

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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