Senate Panel Weighs Habeas Corpus Rules

The Senate Judiciary Committee hears testimony on legislation that would greatly restrict habeas corpus appeals, giving federal judges less power to intervene in cases of prisoners facing executions or prison terms claiming their constitutional rights were violated.

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Congress is considering legislation that would curb the federal appeals of death row inmates and other state prisoners. Prosecutors and supporters say a new law is badly needed to end long delays in some cases. Opponents say it would keep innocent people in prison or hasten their execution. As NPR's Libby Lewis reports, the matter was taken up today by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona says the system needs fixing.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): It should not take eight or nine years and three trips to the Supreme Court to finalize whether a person, in fact, was properly convicted or not. The sad fact is that after nine years of this act, we still have that situation pertaining in far too many cases.

LEWIS: Cases, he said, like 13-year-old Christy Ann Fornoff. She was murdered while she was on her newspaper route in Tempe, Arizona. That was 20 years ago. Donald Beaty, who was convicted of killing her, has been appealing his case in federal court for 14 years. Kyl said he wants to preserve the right of the innocent to get their cases in federal court, but he wants to tighten what he calls the loopholes in the law.

Kyl has a lot of prosecutors rooting for him. Several of them came today in support. Tom Dolgenos handles federal appeals for the Philadelphia district attorney's office. He told the committee that his office sees signs that guilty people use federal courts to cheat the system every day.

Mr. TOM DOLGENOS (Philadelphia District Attorney's Office): The longer the process goes on, the more opportunities exist for witness tampering and intimidation. After all, police and judges cannot protect witnesses forever, and too often a recantation or other new evidence is simply the product of coercion or foul play.

LEWIS: On the other side was Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project. He said the exoneration of more than a hundred death row inmates and dozens of other prisoners show there are big problems in the criminal justice system. Scheck said they are problems that this legislation would just cover up.

Mr. BARRY SCHECK (Co-director, The Innocence Project): The ineffective lawyers, the suppressed Brady material, the prosecutorial misconduct, the mistaken IDs, the false confessions--there's so much of that out there on other cases that we can only get if lawyers have an opportunity for a full and fair litigation in the cases of innocence.

LEWIS: Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman also spoke out against the bill. Waxman does not oppose the death penalty, unlike many opponents of the legislation. Waxman said by his reckoning, such a bill would not project people like Thomas Miller-El, an African-American man who's been on death row in Texas for 19 years. Last month the US Supreme Court sent Miller-El's case back for review a second time. Both times it found prosecutors had deliberately skewed jury selection to keep qualified blacks off Miller-El's jury.

Mr. SETH WAXMAN (Former Solicitor General): Those people, if this bill passed, almost certainly would not have been able even to get into federal court.

LEWIS: Waxman said he believes this bill is more about stripping the federal courts of jurisdiction rather than about fixing problems.

Senator Arlen Specter, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, seemed sympathetic to arguments on both sides. He used to be the district attorney in Philadelphia. Specter said he's looking for answers to the long delays in some cases, and he says he wants help finding those answers. The bill is scheduled for further Senate debate tomorrow. Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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