By David Eugene Archer Sr.
A contentious Justice Department policy that could speed up death-row executions is closer to taking effect, after a recent federal appeals court ruling.
The opinion from the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this March tossed a 2013 lawsuit brought by the Habeas Corpus Resource Center in California and the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona, reported the Wall Street Journal.
The three-judge panel wrote, “Assisting and counseling clients in the face of legal uncertainty is the role of lawyers.” The panel found that the plaintiffs failed to show they had been directly harmed.
The plaintiffs, which represent death-row inmates in federal appeals, had argued the Justice Department regulations were too vague and caused the groups concern over how to commit limited attorney time and financial resources in capital cases, said the article.
The suit challenged a Justice Department policy that in certain states would shorten the amount of time – from one year to six months – in which prisoners must challenge their conviction in federal court after state appeals end, the WSJ stated.
The use of the death penalty continues a years-long decline. In 2015, 28 people were executed, the lowest number since 1991, according to a study by the Death Penalty Information Center. Roughly 3,000 inmates were on death row at the beginning of the year in 31 states. In 1999 there were 98 executions. To date in 2016 there were only 17.
Death penalty opponents worry about the Department of Justice policy. “…we think there needs to be greater opportunities for courts to review these cases,” said Marc Shapiro, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “DOJ is seeking to do exactly the opposite, and slide the cases through federal court.”
Shapiro said his clients plan to request a full Ninth Circuit panel to hear the case. Until the court takes up or denies that request, implementation of the fast-track policy continues to be on hold, according to the WSJ.
More than a third of those sentenced to death between 1976 and 2013 had their sentences or convictions reversed through state or federal appeals, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
No states have yet been approved to use the fast-track process-put into law in 1996 and revised by the DOJ in 2013. But Texas and Arizona have both asked to be allowed to use it. To qualify, states must show they provide competent counsel to indigent prisoners during state post-conviction proceedings, reports the WSJ.
Federal appeals of death-row sentences are a last resort and typically must challenge a constitutional or federal issue, not revisit the underlying facts of the case, says the report.