EDITORIAL: "Proposal to Speed Up Death Penalty Appeals Troubling"

A recent editorial in the Montgomery Advertiser criticized a proposal by Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to speed up death penalty appeals. His proposed legislation would require two parts of the appeal process to essentially run concurrently. The editorial cautioned that lack of adequate representation for death penalty defendants would make the accelerated process more problematic. The paper concluded, “Anything that smacks of haste in capital punishment cases is inherently troubling. This is a difficult issue for the Legislature to tackle, especially in an election year, when emotion and political expediency can form a dangerous combination. If there was ever a time for sober, somber, serious debate of an issue, with an unblinking recognition of what is really at stake, surely this is it.” Read the editorial below.

EDITORIAL: Proposal to speed up death penalty appeals troubling

“The law is a dangerous thing,” observes a character in the great Appalachian chronicler Jesse Stuart’s novel “Taps for Private Tussie.” Indeed it is. Of all the facets of the judicial system, surely nothing is more dangerous, more horrifying, than the prospect of executing an innocent person.

It is the ultimate error, the one mistake beyond any hope of human correction.

That is why we are deeply concerned by Attorney General Luther Strange’s proposed legislation to accelerate the appeals process in death penalty cases, and why we urge the Legislature to weigh this measure with the utmost care.

Although it is easy to point to long delays in carrying out death sentences and easier still to sympathize with the loved ones of victims, the state nonetheless has a solemn obligation in these cases.

As great as the obligation for scrupulously careful, responsible conduct in depriving individuals of liberty in other criminal cases is, the moral obligation in capital punishment cases is immeasurably greater.

Currently, the appeal in a death penalty case begins with a direct appeal addressing issues and facts in the trial. That is heard by the state Court of Criminal Appeals, the Alabama Supreme Court and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court.

After that, what is known as a Rule 32 appeal may begin, addressing issues such as the effectiveness of counsel and evidence provided to the defense. That is heard by a state circuit court, the state Court of Criminal Appeals, the state Supreme Court and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court.

There is a third avenue of appeal in the federal courts, where constitutional issues may be raised. The state has no say over this process, so Strange is focusing on the other two. He proposes having them run at essentially the same time.

Currently, the Rule 32 process cannot start until the direct appeal process is completed. Strange’s proposal would require the defendant to file a Rule 32 petition within 180 days of filing the direct appeal and would require the circuit court to rule on that appeal within 180 days of completion of the direct appeal.

He contends that this “dual track” approach would reduce the overall time in death penalty appeals while being fair to defendants and to the families of victims. He’s probably right about reducing the time, although he could offer no estimate of how much time that might be, but we are far less confident about the rest of it.

Death penalty defendants often have difficulty getting adequate legal counsel as it is. This accelerated approach seems likely to make that even more problematic. In addition, does it make sense to spend money — often state funds because so many defendants are indigent — on a Rule 32 appeal that would prove needless if the direct appeal prevails?

The prospect of error in death penalty cases is not a far-fetched fear. As a 2012 study found, there have been numerous documented cases in recent years, including six in Alabama, in which persons sentenced to death and awaiting execution have been exonerated.

Anything that smacks of haste in capital punishment cases is inherently troubling. This is a difficult issue for the Legislature to tackle, especially in an election year, when emotion and political expediency can form a dangerous combination. If there was ever a time for sober, somber, serious debate of an issue, with an unblinking recognition of what is really at stake, surely this is it.

(“Editorial: Proposal to speed up death penalty appeals is troubling,” Montgomery Advertiser, January 11, 2014). Read more Editorials about the death penalty.