August 25, 2007

Speeding up death

How is the Bush administration responding to the Innocence Project's announcement that the number of prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence alone has now exceeded 200?

With a plan to speed up - rather than slow down - the execution process.

The plan, authorized by the USA Patriot Act, will halve the time for prisoners to file post-conviction appeals in federal court from one year to six months. Judges will then have only 120 days to decide a case.

The one catch, under the regulations as currently being rewritten by the Justice Department, is that cases can only be fast-tracked from states that provide competent legal representation to indigent defendants. And who will decide that? Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, hardly an impartial observer.

The plan to speed the death machinery comes a decade after federal reforms that considerably limited federal appeals, resulting in far fewer convictions being overturned. According to a new study by law professors Eric Freedman and David Dow, the percentage of successful appeals has dropped from 40% to 12%, and is continuing to fall.

"The notion that the federal government wants to accelerate executions in the face of known mistakes, and wants to do so just as DNA is becoming available in more and more cases, is mind-boggling," one of the study's authors is quoted in the New York Times as saying. "It will increase the risk that some state executes a person we later find to be innocent."

Legal columnist Adam Liptak's take on the issue, "Greasing the Wheels on the Machinery of Death," is available online to paid subscribers of the New York Times. (I had heard that the Times was changing this policy of requiring payment to read its editorial columns, but apparently that has not yet happened.)

Hat tip to Gretchen White for alerting me to this column.

The photo, of "Old Sparky" at Sing Sing Prison, is in the public domain.