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Stuart Taylor on Death Penalty Appeals

June 3, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In April, President Clinton signed a bill into law that would limit access to federal court by prison inmates. The bill, known as the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, was in part a reaction by the President and Congress to the long delays in getting convicted felons executed. In order to speed up the process, the bill imposes strict time limits on Death Row inmates’ appeals. It also permits only one federal appeal of a state court conviction.

The case in front of the court today was brought by Ellis Wayne Felker, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1983 for sodomizing and murdering a woman in Georgia. Felker’s lawyers based their appeals on the principle of habeas corpus, a provision that allows a person to test whether he is being held in prison legally. The Supreme Court turned down Felker’s appeal for a hearing three times, the last time just before the President signed the effective death penalty act. Felker’s lawyers filed a fourth appeal, and the Supreme Court this time agreed to hear his arguments. The court’s hearing of the Felker case is regarded as a test for whether the act President Clinton signed in April is constitutional.

JIM LEHRER: And now for more on today’s arguments, NewsHour regular Stuart Taylor, correspondent with the “American Lawyer” and “Legal Times.” Stuart, welcome.

STUART TAYLOR, The American Lawyer: Nice to be here.

JIM LEHRER: What is the constitutional issue involved in this?

MR. TAYLOR: The issue as framed by the Supreme Court is whether this new law signed by the President is unconstitutional in that it restricts the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to hear a certain class of these habeas corpus cases, and jurisdiction is power. So it goes to the relative power of Congress versus the Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: And it is–the, the lawyers for Felker are arguing that the Congress doesn’t have a right to tell the Supreme Court how many appeals it can take essentially?

MR. TAYLOR: They are arguing that in a nuanced way, but they’re also arguing that Congress did not do so in this case. In other words, they’re arguing for an interpretation of this law that suits their position as opposed to saying the law is unconstitutional. They’re saying if Congress meant to cut off this case, Congress did not succeed in its intention.

JIM LEHRER: Explain how this case–this bill was just signed, as Charlayne said, in the backgrounder, this bill was recently signed into law. Why is the Felker case relevant?

MR. TAYLOR: Well, it’s relevant to a particular part of the new law. The new law contains a whole bunch of restrictions on the complicated remedy of habeas corpus, and a large purpose was to speed up the death penalty. One of those areas of restrictions was in what’s called successive habeas corpus petitions. This is when a prisoner on Death Row comes back to the Supreme Court after having come once and lost an appeal, then lost and gone to the Supreme Court and lost, he starts over again. And in those–in that class of cases, the Congress adopted some particular provisions to try and restrict the courts from hearing those cases. Felker happened to be at the stage in the development of his case where just after the law passed he was about to be executed and was coming back with one of these second bites at the apple, so to speak.

JIM LEHRER: Does the law restrict the number of bites to the apple, on the apple, or does it restrict the amount of time that must–that can elapse for an appeal?

MR. TAYLOR: It restricts both. One provision of the law puts a one-year time limit on the initial filing of a federal habeas corpus petition after the prisoner’s exhausted his state remedies. Another provision of the law prescribes–

JIM LEHRER: In other words, somebody sentenced to, to death, to die in the electric chair or whatever, they have a certain amount of time to file a federal appeal. If they don’t file the federal appeal under this law it’s all over?

MR. TAYLOR: That’s right.


MR. TAYLOR: They have a certain amount of time to file their first federal appeal.


MR. TAYLOR: Then if they do that and they lose and they appeal it on up to the Supreme Court and they keep losing, then often just before they’re executed, they’ll come back and try it again. They’ll start over with the second federal habeas corpus appeal. That’s what this Death Row inmate did, and there’s a whole part of this law Congress just passed designed to particularly expedite that class of cases. Congress saw it as a big problem, that you can never execute these people. The cases go on and on and on for years and years because they always come back for another bite at the apple.

JIM LEHRER: What is the argument made before the Justices today and generally for, uh, for the defendant, in other words, for repeated appeals coming back for many bites at the apple?

MR. TAYLOR: In a very general way, the argument is that defendants, umm, often are wrongfully convicted the first time and lose on appeal because their lawyers aren’t very good. And it’s not until late in the process, maybe on the eve of execution, that a good lawyer comes along. Sometimes new evidence is discovered very late in the case. So those are the fundamental points that are made on behalf of these repeated appeals. In today’s–in the context of today’s case, this particular prisoner is saying, hey, I’m innocent, I have newly discovered evidence that shows I’m innocent, and, and I should have another chance to prove that.

JIM LEHRER: Now what’s the argument in general against it and specifically on the Felker case?

MR. TAYLOR: The argument in general against it is that unless Congress and the courts clamp down on these repeat appeals, you’ll have continuing delays in imposition of the death penalty. Cases, as is the case, often go on for five to ten, fifteen years where people are on Death Row bringing appeal after appeal and that they will always come up with something to try and prolong the process that if they–if they delay the situation, they succeed. The argument in this particular case is that Mr. Felker has not raised any substantial new evidence and that if he did have anything and that none of the things he’s brought up now are new. He could have, he could have brought them all up sooner.

JIM LEHRER: What, what will be the impact of the, of the court’s decision, whichever way it goes?

MR. TAYLOR: Umm, well, it, it could go in a number of ways. It’s not just sort of any, you know, well one side wins or the other side wins. This course came on as perhaps a climactic confrontation over the congressional power to limit Supreme Court jurisdiction, the idea being, well, suppose this fellow is innocent or somebody else is innocent and Congress is, in essence, telling the Supreme Court, sorry, you can’t hear his case because the court of appeals said you can’t, umm, and would that be unconstitutional? It looks as though based on the argument, the court is not going to confront it that way. I think the court is going to find that one way or another if the guy’s really innocent, the Supreme Court has a way of hearing his case and that if Congress intended to prevent that, they did not word the statute in a way that’s succeeded.

JIM LEHRER: So if the court makes that decision, how many people are affected? How important is that?

MR. TAYLOR: There are 3,000 people on Death Row, and a rather limited number of them would be affected in the sense that very few of them have much hope of ever winning their cases in the Supreme Court of the United States. And depending on the outcome of this case, one–a few of them might get that shot or a few of them might not get that shot.

JIM LEHRER: Now, this case was–this particular case, the Felker case, was put on a fast track at the Supreme Court. Explain what that is and why they did it?

MR. TAYLOR: That’s right. President Clinton signed this law in late April. This fellow filed a–

JIM LEHRER: We’re sitting here in June.

MR. TAYLOR: This fellow filed a petition in the Supreme Court May 2nd. The court granted it May 3rd and agreed to hear the case over the dissent of the four most liberal members of the court, who said this is unseemly, haste, and it’s unwise to do this in such an extraordinary way. They very rarely hear any cases in June. And they expedited the briefing of it so instead of the 75 days you normally have to file briefs, they had two weeks in this case.

The reason they’re apparently in such a hurry is there are two ways of looking at it–one is that they thought the purpose of this whole law was to get on with executions and that, that a majority of the court is in accord with that and wants to clear away obstacles. Another, another and more neutral way of looking at it is that it might have been the ironic side effect of this new law to delay executions even more if we had to wait for a long time and every execution in the country had to wait for a long time to figure out what the, what the meaning and impact and constitutionality of these particular provisions regarding Supreme Court jurisdiction were. So I think the court wanted to clear that up as fast as it could.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, Stuart. Thank you very much.

MR. TAYLOR: Thank you.