The Justice Department plans regulations that could give Attorney General Alberto Gonzales new sway over death penalty cases in California and other states, including the power to shorten the time death row inmates have to appeal convictions to federal courts, the Los Angeles Times reports. The rules implement a provision in last year’s reauthorization of the Patriot Act that gives the attorney general the power to decide whether individual states are providing adequate counsel for defendants in death penalty cases. The authority has been upheld by federal judges.
Under the proposal, if a state requested it and Gonzales agreed, prosecutors could use “fast track” procedures that could shave years off the time that a death row inmate has to appeal to federal courts after a state conviction. The move to shorten the appeals process and speed up executions comes at a time of growing national concern about the fairness of the death penalty, underscored by the use of DNA testing to establish the innocence of more than a dozen death row inmates. Some Arizona officials say the new procedures are long overdue. “If you are going to have the death penalty at all, it shouldn’t take 20 to 25 years,” said Kent Cattani of the Arizona attorney general’s office. Advocates for death row inmates and some experts say the rules would make a bad system worse. “It is another means by which people are determined to shut the federal courts down to meaningful review of death penalty cases,” said Elisabeth Semel of the Death Penalty Clinic at the UC Berkeley law school. “The inevitable result of speeding them up is to miss profound legal errors that are made. Lawyers will not see them. Courts will not address them.” About 3,350 people are on death row.