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GOP targets inmate appeals

Hopes to speed execution cases

WASHINGTON -- Republicans in Congress have launched a new effort to speed up executions in the United States by limiting the ability of those sentenced to death to appeal to federal courts.

The Streamlined Procedures Act of 2005, introduced in the House by Representative Dan Lungren of California and in the Senate by Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, would limit the ability of defendants facing the death sentence to have cases reviewed by federal courts in habeas corpus appeals.

''You see delays in death penalty cases where they are allowed to drag on for 15 or even 25 years. Defense attorneys have come to believe the longer they delay, the better it is for their clients," Lungren said in an interview.

Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee considering the bill, conceded that there was little chance of blocking it in the House.

''The House has been very supportive of anything that would strip the innocent of a fair hearing," he said in an interview.

Death penalty opponents say the law would strip the ability of federal courts to review most claims in capital cases.

''It seeks a radical cutting and slashing of our existing process of habeas corpus reviews of state convictions," Bernard Harcourt, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said last week in a hearing before the House subcommittee reviewing the legislation. ''This new bill would effectively gut habeas corpus review where states have imposed a sentence of death."

Habeas corpus -- Latin for ''you have the body" -- has been a centerpiece of Anglo-American jurisprudence since it was first developed more than 300 years ago in Britain. It gives defendants the right to have their imprisonment reviewed by a court.

In US death penalty cases, defense lawyers consider the right to have federal courts oversee state court decisions a vital weapon.

Headed by Columbia University statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman, a study of all 5,826 death sentences imposed in the United States between 1973 and 1995 found that 68 percent were reversed on appeal.

The most common reasons were ''egregiously incompetent lawyering, prosecutorial misconduct or suppression of evidence, misinstruction of jurors, or biased judges or jurors," according to the study, published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

Federal courts examining habeas corpus appeals overturned 40 percent of the cases that had been upheld by state appeals courts, a fact the authors called worrisome.

The number of death sentences handed down in the United States has fallen to about 150 a year from about 300 a year in the late 1990s, according to figures from the Death Penalty Information Center.

Last year, there were 58 executions in the United States, and there have been 27 this year. The average time spent on death row before execution is 11 to 12 years.

Ronald Eisenberg, a deputy district attorney from Philadelphia, said federal judges often threw out death sentences for frivolous reasons.

''Whether or not they actually reverse a conviction, federal habeas corpus courts drag litigation out for years of utterly unjustifiable delay, creating exorbitant costs for the state and endless pain for the victims," he told the House subcommittee last week.

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