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New Rules Could Shorten Death-Row Inmates’ Appeal Time

The Justice Department is considering new rules that could give Attorney General Alberto Gonzales power to expedite death penalty cases. Legal experts discuss the proposed changes.

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    Rules currently under consideration at the Justice Department would give Attorney General Alberto Gonzales new powers that could ultimately limit the time inmates spend on appeal on death row. Today, on average, that's just over 10 years.

    Under the new arrangement, Justice Department officials would be able to fast-track the death row appeal process if the state requests it and if the attorney general agrees the state has proper legal counsel in place for the defendants. Right now, that decision is made by a federal appeals court.

    If the regulations are approved, death row inmates could have six months, rather than a year, to file appeals in the federal courts, and federal judges would have less time to consider petitions in capital cases.

    Now, we get two perspectives on the new rules from Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for swift and decisive punishment of criminals; and Virginia Sloan, president and founder of the Constitution Project, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that examines the fairness and accuracy of death penalty cases.

    And, Kent Scheidegger, if you're a condemned person fighting execution or a prosecutor arguing that the sentence be carried out, how would this new regulation change the way the process works?

  • KENT SCHEIDEGGER, Legal Director, Criminal Justice Legal Foundation:

    Well, the regulation doesn't really change anything. The change has already been made by an act of Congress a year-and-a-half ago. These regulations simply implement the act of Congress, and they are basically just the mechanics of the application process.

    What would happen is that federal courts would have deadlines that they would have to meet to conduct what is actually the third review of these cases that have already been reviewed twice by the state courts.

    And the deadlines are not severe. The federal district court has a year and three months to do this third review of already-reviewed cases. Unfortunately, at present, the federal courts often take longer than that, especially here in the West. It's not unusual for these cases to drag out six, seven, eight years.

    Your report said the average time is 10 years. In California, it's 20. And the courts have just taken too long with these cases.