The former Director of the FBI, William Sessions (pictured), along with Timothy Lewis, a former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals, called on members of Congress to refrain from barring death row inmates and other defendants from the full access to the federal courts in their appeals. Some legislators have proposed eliminating federal habeas corpus review in many cases, and barring access to the federal courts to many of those raising challenges to their death sentences. The authors of the op-ed wrote, in part:

We take a back seat to no one in our support for strong law enforcement, but we are equally committed to our country’s long-standing commitment to fair trials and constitutional safeguards. These safeguards are essential to making as sure as possible that when we charge someone with a crime, we have the right person and that that person, if convicted, receives the sentence he or she deserves.

All Americans should be alarmed at the many recent exonerations of innocent people who have served years in prison or on death row. Not only have we locked up the wrong people, but the true perpetrators remain free to inflict more harm.

As a result, we are profoundly disturbed about reports of a new and misguided assault on the writ of habeas corpus. In a back-door action, the provision in question would be attached to entirely unrelated legislation in the few remaining days before Congress adjourns. It has never been examined by any congressional committee, so no senator or representative has heard what no doubt would be an outcry of public opposition against it.

The provision would cover much of the same ground as the Streamlined Procedures Act, an ill-conceived bill that generated enormous opposition last year. For the first time, both the Judicial Conference, representing the country’s federal judges, and the Conference of Chief Justices, representing the chief justices of all states, forcefully opposed the act because it would have stripped the federal courts of much of their jurisdiction to hear habeas petitions.

Numerous other reasonable voices across the political spectrum also opposed this legislation. They did so because, as the chief justices stated, “The wrongful conviction of an innocent person leaves the actual perpetrator free and undermines public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system.”

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 26, 2006). See

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