Va. Death Row Inmate Contests Appeal Page Limit


A Virginia man awaiting execution argues that the state’s 50-page limit on post-conviction petitions made it impossible to present all the arguments that might persuade courts to reverse his sentence, reports the Boston Globe. Dennis Orbe, 39, admits his crime but says he did not intend to kill 39-year-old Richard Burnett, a convenience store clerk, on Jan. 24, 1998, and therefore should not die, as sentenced by a jury. His execution is scheduled for March 31.

Orbe will take his case over page lengths to the U.S. Supreme Court. “It’s like target shooting with a revolver from which half the bullets have been removed,” says Eric M. Freedman, a Hofstra Law professor. “You’d like to take six shots, but you have only three. Fifty pages may not be sufficient to save your client’s life.”

Three years ago, Orbe’s 113-page petition to the Virginia Supreme Court was denied because it exceeded the 50-page limit. Orbe’s attorneys had to pick four arguments to drop, including a claim of jury misconduct and an argument that one of Orbe’s original attorneys was unqualified.

Page limits in court proceedings have been commonplace to encourage attorneys to stick to their best arguments. In capital cases, however, the restriction is more recent, having popped up in the past decade in eight states. Being forced to choose which claims to drop may expose defense attorneys to a moral and professional dilemma. Some attorneys belive they are gambling with their client’s life by having to select some claims while sacrificing others that might have been successful arguments.


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