A key provision in last year’s death penalty ballot initiative to speed up executions failed to impose strict deadlines on how much time is allowed to resolve an appeal filed by an inmate’s attorney, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“Proposition 66, sponsored by prosecutors and passed by 51 percent of the voters, was intended to remove various hurdles that have prevented the state from executing an inmate in more than 10 years at San Quentin State Prison,” the Times reported.
In an August ruling, the California Supreme Court preserved most of the Prop 66 language intact, prompting one of its sponsors to predict that executions will resume in the coming months.
Five of the seven Supreme Court jurists agreed the initiative’s language that death penalty appeals must be decided within five years was meant as a “directive,” not mandatory, the Times reported.
Justice Carol A. Corrigan, who wrote the majority opinion for the court, said that the deadline is merely “an exhortation to the parties and the courts to handle cases as expeditiously as is consistent with the fair and principled administration of justice.”
According to the article, in order to complete the review of the backlog of cases, the court would have to spend 90 percent of its time on death penalty cases for at least the next five years to meet the five-year deadline, legal analysts said.
Those who complained about the court’s decision said without imposing deadlines, appeals can take decades to resolve.
There are currently 18 inmates on Death Row who have exhausted their appeals, and according to Michael Rushford, president of a pro-death penalty group, they don’t have much time left. “I think months is a reasonable estimate” of when the next execution will occur, he said.
Pleased with the court’s ruling, Kent Scheidegger, another proponent of the initiative, said if the court decides appeals more quickly, “we should see a very substantial speedup”.
“Nobody is going to be executed tomorrow,” said Christina Von der Ahe Rayburn, who represented the challengers to the initiative. However, this ruling does make executions more possible in the short term.
She is very optimistic that federal courts have the authority to delay the resumption of executions in the future, said Von der Ahe Rayburn.
“I just can’t imagine the federal case gets resolved that quickly, especially if it can go up on appeal,” she said.
Despite her optimism, Rayburn said that the decision surprised and disappointed her. She was heartened by language in the ruling “that they won’t make much effort to honor the deadlines.”
Justice Corrigan said “it remains to be seen” how effective Proposition 66 will be in expediting death penalty appeals. Much will depend on whether the Legislature provides more funds for the courts.
California law gives each person convicted of the death penalty an automatic appeal and a separate habeas corpus challenge in the Supreme Court.
According to the article, an inmate’s appeal is based on the written record of what happened at trial and could involve, for example, a challenge of a judge’s ruling on whether to admit or exclude evidence.
The court also considers the inmate’s habeas corpus challenge. Those arguments are based on events that were not reflected in the trial transcripts, such as newly discovered evidence or juror misconduct.
This entire review process can take a decade or longer for the California Supreme Court to rule on an automatic appeal.
The Times article concluded, “The state has 748 inmates on Death Row – the largest number in the country – and legal challenges over lethal injection have prevented executions since 2006.”