High court appears to lean toward giving death row inmates way to get free counsel

March 25, 1998|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court held out some hope yesterday for death row inmates in Maryland and elsewhere that they can prevent states from speeding up executions until the inmates have competent lawyers to handle their cases.

At a hearing, several justices appeared ready to explore ways for inmates facing execution to receive assurances in court of free lawyers to help challenge their convictions and sentences.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who might hold the decisive vote if the court is split on the issue, said "it makes a lot of sense" to give all death row prisoners in a given state, joined in a single case, a chance to resolve questions about lawyers' availability.

States that do not provide free and competent lawyers cannot benefit from a 1996 law that allows a streamlining of the federal courts' handling of death row cases -- a law intended to shorten the time between sentencing and carrying out the sentence.

The streamlining applies only in states that have set up a system of appointing and paying the costs of "competent counsel" to handle the pleas of poor inmates in capital punishment cases.

At yesterday's hearing, the court explored methods that inmates could use to go to court to argue that their state lacks such a system and should not be allowed to speed the capital punishment process.

The court examined that issue in a California case. But a Maryland case that raises identical questions is pending at the court and will be affected by how the justices decide the California appeal.

Maryland inmates contend that Maryland lacks an adequate system of providing free attorneys to death row inmates who need them. The state disagrees. The dispute has not been resolved in the courts.

Several Maryland inmates have individual cases in federal court that challenge their convictions or sentences. Those cases have been put on hold until the Supreme Court decides what options to give death row prisoners under the new law.

Yesterday, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said inmates face "a terrible dilemma" under the 1996 law. If they rush to court to file challenges without adequate legal help, they may satisfy the deadlines but present weak cases.

On the other hand, Breyer said, if they wait, on the theory that their state does not qualify for the streamlined procedures and they turn out to be wrong, they might not get to court at all.

"Are they without any remedy?" Breyer asked a lawyer for California. "Should they be allowed to test out their remedy in advance?"

The lawyer, Ronald S. Matthias, a deputy state attorney general, replied that inmates could raise the issue when they file their challenges.

California argues that states are immune to inmates' lawsuits that seek to challenge a state's arrangements for free lawyers. A federal appeals court rejected that claim.

But another federal appeals court, ruling in the Maryland case, has said the state is immune to such lawsuits.

O'Connor said she could not understand why states would not want their right to speed capital punishment proceedings clarified rather than test that right one case at a time.

The court is expected to rule by early summer. The justices then will act on the Maryland case.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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