Congress OKs Fast-Tracked Executions

Congress says the attorney general can fast-track death penalty cases in states that give capital defendants adequate representation. It's the latest effort to cut down on the amount of time prisoners spend on death row.

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The average U.S. prison inmate awaiting execution spends more than 10 years on death row. That's because the appeals process through the federal courts can take a very long time. The USA Patriot Act gives the attorney general new authority to streamline capital cases, and Monday marks the end of the public comment period for the Justice Department's new death penalty fast-track policy.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: When Paul Charlton was the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told him to seek the death penalty in a case where Charlton thought it was not appropriate. Charlton asked Gonzales to reconsider his decision, and he was told that Gonzales deliberated for five minutes.

Mr. PAUL CHARLTON (Attorney, United States District Court, Arizona): He was an individual who put little time or concern into the issue about who it is we should execute. That is the most important decision a prosecutor will ever make, and that's true for the attorney general as well.

SHAPIRO: Charlton was later asked to resign. He was in the group of U.S. attorneys whose mass dismissal eventually led to Alberto Gonzales' downfall. And now that the next attorney general is about to get more authority to speed death penalty cases through the system, Charlton says:

Mr. CHARLTON: We have to have somebody in that position who truly understands the gravity or the importance or significance of taking another person's life.

SHAPIRO: A decade ago, Congress gave federal judges the authority to fast track death penalty appeals in states that give capital defendants good lawyers. But judges didn't use that authority as much as prosecutors would have liked. So when Congress reauthorized the USA Patriot Act last year, they gave the fast-track power to the attorney general instead.

Fast-track authority means a capital defendant would have only six months rather than a year to appeal a conviction in federal court and federal judges would have less time to consider the petitions. Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center says the problem is no attorney general is a disinterested party.

Mr. RICHARD DIETER (Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center): Justice Department actively seeks the death penalty all over the country, trains people in how to carry out lethal injection, enters Supreme Court cases on the side of the prosecution. They are not a neutral observer to this.

SHAPIRO: Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin says this is not a fox-guarding-the-hen-house situation.

Mr. ERIK ABLIN (Spokesman, Justice Department): The cases for which the certification system would apply are state cases, whereas, the Justice Department prosecutes federal cases.

SHAPIRO: And Ablin points out the appeals court in the District of Columbia has been assigned to review and potentially overturn the attorney general's decisions. Former Justice official Robert Litt represents the American Bar Association in this debate.

Mr. ROBERT LITT (Member, Criminal Justice Section Council): Obviously, it's better to have a process that's fair from the beginning rather than a process that isn't set up properly and then hope that a judge will fix it on review.

SHAPIRO: Litt also says the standards for what counts as a competent lawyer are very vague. He worries the attorney general will say a state does a good job representing defendants when it actually doesn't.

Marquette political science professor John McAdams thinks that fear is unfounded.

Dr. JOHN McADAMS (Political Science, Marquette University): The states have made very large strides in guaranteeing good lawyers to people convicted of capital murder. But simply allowing a case to sit around and sit around in the federal courts for years and then decades, simply has no relationship whatsoever to actually doing justice.

SHAPIRO: With the public comment period ending Monday, the Justice Department will review the feedback, write a final version of the regulations and then the power will be in the hands of the new attorney general.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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