California Commission Examines State's Death Penalty

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice examined the state’s death penalty on January 10 in an effort to identify inconsistencies in its application and reforms for improving the system. California has the largest death row in the country and the backlog of cases has presented significant problems in ensuring timely appeals and limiting costs. Legal experts suggested that the state needs to narrow its definition of what constitutes a capital crime. The state now has 33 "special circumstance" crimes that allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Noting that ending the death penalty in the state and replacing it with life without parole would save the state considerable money, some commission members declared that the whole death penalty process needs rethinking. Currently, the average inmate has been on California’s death row for 17 years, almost double the national average. The state has executed 13 inmates since reinstating the punishment over 30 years ago.

Former Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Kogan testified that the expansive list of crimes that qualify for the death penalty is the root cause of California's backlogged system. "You are having a problem in this state because the front end of the system is overloaded," he said.

Chief Justice Ronald George told the commission that he considers the overwhelming amount of death penalty appeals the state Supreme Court reviews “a real crisis” that, if not fixed, would “undermine the rule of law.” He recently pushed a constitutional amendment that would spread the cases among the state’s 105 appellate justices. California voters could see this issue on the ballot as soon as November. The Commission will meet again on February 20 in Los Angeles.

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Nevada Supreme Court Issues New Death Penalty Representation Standards

The Nevada Supreme Court recently issued new standards for indigent defense counsel, including special provisions for capital cases that address all facets of death penalty proceedings, from the selection of the public defenders to post-conviction appeals. Key standards regarding death penalty cases from the 72-page document include:

  • The defense team should consist of no fewer than two attorneys…and contain at least one member qualified by training and experience to screen individuals for the presence of mental or psychological disorders or impairments
  • Each capital defendant within the jurisdiction [should] receive high-quality legal representation.
  • Funds should be made available for the effective training, professional development, and continuing education of all members of the defense team, whether the members are employed by an institutional defender or are employed or retained by counsel appointed by the court.
  • Counsel in death penalty cases should be fully compensated at a rate that is commensurate with the provision of high-quality legal representation and reflects the extraordinary responsibilities inherent in death penalty representation.
  • The workload of attorneys representing defendants in death penalty cases [should be] maintained at a level that enables counsel to provide each client with high-quality legal representation in accordance with the Nevada Indigent Defense Standards of Performance.

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Legislative Activity - Montana
  • Montana Assistant Attorney General Calls for Death Penalty Repeal Montana Assistant Attorney General John Connor has voiced support for a legislative measure that would abolish capital punishment in his state. Stating his belief that the death penalty does not deter crime and is expensive, Connor told the Montana House Judiciary Committee, "It seems to me to be the ultimate incongruity to say we respect life so much that we're going to dedicate all our money, all our resources, our legal expertise and our entire system to try and take your life. . . . Frankly, I just don't think I can do it anymore." Senator Dan Harrington, who sponsored this year's repeal measure, added that it is wrong to teach children "that to prevent violence we beget violence." He also noted that the death penalty is costly and unfair. The death penalty repeal measure passed the Montana Senate in February. It is pending in the House. Montana has two people on death row. (Associated Press, March 10, 2007). UPDATE: The repeal bill was defeated in the Montana House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 9-8.

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