Supreme Court to rule on inmate rights in death penalty cases Decision will affect appeal from Maryland

December 06, 1997|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to spell out the right of death-row inmates, in Maryland and elsewhere, to try to stop states from speeding up the pace of executions.

The justices took on the issue in a California case, but the outcome will affect a comparable case in Maryland, also pending before the Supreme Court.

While the new case is before the court, Maryland apparently will be unable to schedule any executions. Several inmates' cases in lower federal courts have already been slowed because of the dispute -- a slowdown that lawyers for the state have tried to resist.

At the center of the issue is a 1996 federal law that allows states to invoke shorter deadlines and impose other restrictions on the challenges that death-row inmates may make in federal courts to their convictions and sentences. Advocates of the law contended that death-row inmates had frequently delayed their executions for a decade or longer simply by filing challenge after challenge in federal courts.

Before any state may take advantage of the law's new restrictions, however, it must prove that it has in place a system for providing free and competent lawyers to handle death-penalty challenges. If a state lacks such a system, the prisoners' challenges can proceed as they have before.

In the case the Supreme Court agreed to review, California argues that it satisfies the new federal law's condition. It also asserts that states have immunity under the Constitution's 11th Amendment to lawsuits by inmates who are trying to head off the accelerated court procedures.

A federal appeals court based in San Francisco ruled in August that California death-row inmates may sue the state to challenge California's right to use the legal shortcuts, rejecting the state's immunity argument. The appeals court also ruled that California did not meet the condition of providing adequate defense lawyers for death-row inmates.

The Supreme Court had before it yesterday the appeal by California and an appeal by five Maryland inmates awaiting execution: Wesley Eugene Baker, John Marvin Booth, Kenneth Lloyd Collins, Tyrone Delano Gilliam and Steven Howard Oken.

Maryland argues that it satisfies the federal law's requirement that able lawyers be provided free to death-row inmates and that several of the state's 16 death-row prisoners should be found to have exhausted their appeals, permitting their execution.

The five inmates challenged the state on that point, arguing that Maryland failed to provide adequate legal help to them, violating their civil rights as well as the new federal law. But the federal appeals court based in Richmond ruled in April that the state is immune to the lawsuit -- directly contrary to the decision reached the federal appellate court in the California case.

In an earlier stage of the Maryland case, Chief U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz of Baltimore ruled that the state had failed to lay down standards for competency of lawyers for death-row inmates and that its system did not ensure that competent lawyers could be found to defend inmates too poor to afford their own attorneys. That ruling, however, was set aside by the appeals court ruling.

The Supreme Court will hold a hearing in March on the new California case and issue a ruling by summer. After that, it is expected to act on the Maryland case.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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