Habeas corpus appeals of death penalty cases actually take longer now than before Congress passed a law in 1996 to speed them, says a new study from law Prof. Nancy King of Vanderbilt University. She said that one of every four cases filed by death row inmates between 2000 and 2002 had not been resolved by the end of November 2006. The study also found that that fewer state convictions and sentences are being ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. The two-year study was partially funded by the U.S. National Institute of Justice. It the first to examine the effects of 1996 law changes that apply when state prisoners challenge their convictions and sentences in federal court.
The research examined nearly 2,400 non-capital cases, randomly selected from the more than 36,000 habeas cases filed in federal district courts nationwide by state prisoners during 2003 and 2004, and more than 360 death penalty cases filed in 13 federal districts between 2000 and 2002. Before the 1996 law, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act or “AEDPA,” federal courts granted a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner in about one of every 100 non-capital cases filed. King found that after the new law, the grant rate was closer to one in every 300 cases. King found that the most common reason for overturning a capital conviction was the failure of the state to provide the inmate with representation in state court that met constitutional standards. Joining King on the study were Fred Cheesman and Brian Ostrom of the National Center for State Courts.