What's the rush on executions?

August 24, 1999

Here is a New York Times editorial, which was published yesterday.

FEDERAL judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and state judges from the three states of that circuit -- Georgia, Alabama and Florida -- convened last week at an Atlanta resort to discuss how to expedite state death-penalty cases.

Though the ostensible goal was to improve the process, there is little doubt that improvement in this context usually means speeding up executions by making it harder for death-row inmates to appeal.

Featured speakers included Judge Edward Carnes of the 11th Circuit, an outspoken death-penalty advocate, and Edith Jones, a federal appeals judge from Texas who has been a severe critic of lawyers who file death-penalty appeals.

Looking to Texas

It is chilling that the judges of the 11th Circuit, which has a moderate record on executions, should be seeking guidance from states like Texas. Texas has been ruthlessly effective in executing 184 inmates since 1982, a frenzy made possible in part by courts willing to deny appeals even in egregiously unjust circumstances.

The judges at the conference may think they are simply discussing effective caseload management, but the application of the death penalty in this country is so grossly unfair that any honest discussion must begin by examining the system's fundamental defects.

Defendants in capital cases are often represented by inexperienced or incompetent trial lawyers working for a pittance. Federal and state statutes and Supreme Court decisions have greatly limited courts' abilities to consider meritorious constitutional claims by death-row inmates.

Many states pay little or nothing for post-conviction proceedings, forcing condemned inmates to represent themselves or seek volunteer lawyers for help.

The result is a system in which some people die because they had bad lawyers and no real shot at a full and fair review, while others fortunate enough to get better counsel are spared the death penalty. A lucky few, helped by pro bono lawyers who take up their causes, have actually been proved innocent after years on death row.

Moving this flawed system along more smoothly will only increase unjust outcomes.

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