California’s colossal death row and notoriously slow capital-punishment system are a main inspiration for fast-moving congressional legislation that would make it tougher than ever for condemned inmates everywhere to challenge their sentences in federal court, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Congress seems on the brink of slamming the door on the ability of most death-row inmates and others to present new evidence to show their original trials were tainted by police or prosecutorial misconduct, or incompetent defense lawyers.
The unprecedented limits would come at a time when concerns are mounting about the fairness of the death penalty — including examples of innocent men set free around the nation. Even some strong death-penalty supporters, from California’s chief justice to former U.S. attorneys general, have expressed reservations. Backers, led by former California attorney general Dan Lungren, now a Republican congressman, say the legislation is needed to keep federal judges from interfering with state efforts to carry out the death penalty and to end 20-year delays for victims’ families waiting for justice. California Chief Justice Ronald George complained that the bill “is being rushed through with all sorts of disturbing ramifications. My fellow chief justices and I are all in favor of efficiency and speed, but the overall concern is with fairness. There are instances where injustices have occurred.”