Death penalty cases piling up
Chief justice says it’s time to open review process to lower courts.
By Crystal Carreon – ccarreon@sacbee. com
Published 12:00 am PST Friday, January 11, 2008
Despite legal challenges to the death penalty, California’s chief justice on Thursday pressed ahead with plans to alter how courts will vet the largest number of capital cases in the country.
Citing decades-long appeals and a backlog that threatens to overwhelm the high court, Chief Justice Ronald George told state commissioners that now is the time to relinquish the state Supreme Court’s exclusive review of death penalty cases and open the process to the lower courts.
George, who addressed the Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice at a Capitol hearing, proposes amending the state Constitution to help fix a process he calls “dysfunctional. ” He hopes to have the proposal on the 2008 general ballot or to find a legislator to sponsor the measure.
“The existing system for handing capital appeals in California is dysfunctional and needs reform,” the chief justice told commissioners. “…(T)he current system is not functioning effectively. “
But skeptics suggested that spreading out capital cases to the appellate courts could add another layer to an already notoriously slow appeals process. A law professor at Thursday’s hearing likened George’s proposal to just “rearranging furniture.”
With a surge in the death row population over the years – currently more than 660 inmates are awaiting execution – George told commissioners that death penalty reviews alone consume about 20 percent to 25 percent of the high court’s caseload, up from about 5 percent to 10 percent about two decades ago.
He pointed out that the number of Supreme Court justices – seven – has remained the same since 1879, while there are 105 state Court of Appeal justices.
George said the state Supreme Court – even if it devoted itself exclusively to capital cases – would take about three to four years to chip away and process the existing backlog. About 400 death penalty appeals are pending in the Supreme Court.
He used words such as “peril,” “critical” and “disadvantage” to describe how the high court’s responsibility to litigate and set case law in crucial civil and criminal matters could be compromised by the massive death penalty caseload.
“If the Supreme Court cannot fulfill that role, California – its people, its government, its economy, its public safety – all would suffer,” George said.
But Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Marshall later told commissioners that the proposal could, in effect, just add another tier of lengthy legal review.
“I understand the impetus,” the professor said. “But, on some level, they are rearranging the furniture … .”
Under the current system, after a death sentence is handed down, an automatic appeal process begins in the state Supreme Court. If the court denies all relief, as it almost always does, the case then moves to the federal system.
The appeal then goes to the U.S. Supreme Court with a request for review. The constitutional case, known as “habeas corpus,” goes to federal district court, then the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, before making its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under the proposal, George said the high court will continue to be “hands-on” and will ultimately review the lower court’s opinion. He recommended sending 30 capital cases to the lower courts initially.
Marshall, who had been influential in commuting death sentences in Illinois, said the state’s unprecedented backlog stems from its breadth of more than 30 death penalty offenses, a range of special circumstances that include killing an officer in the line of duty to lying in wait.
Marshall proposed narrowing the scope of death penalty cases to only the “worst of the worst.” That, he said, would greatly diminish the number of inmates at San Quentin’s death row.
Earlier versions of capital punishment in California had fewer special circumstances, but voters in 1978 changed that, according to Sacramento attorney Donald H. Heller, who drafted the state’s death penalty initiative.
“It’s something the people wanted,” Heller said. “The initiative was very broad in its scope.”
Heller said at the time, he believed the Supreme Court’s careful review of death penalty appeals would take about 10 years – not the 17 1/2-year average cited by legal scholars, the slowest process in the country.
He called George’s proposal reasonable, saying it would not undermine rights to due process and fair hearings. Although Heller has since become a critic of capital punishment, he said if the state is to continue its practice, it needs to diminish the backlog.
“If you believe in the law, then you need to take into account what is clearly an unreasonable delay between sentence of death and a final decision of the California Supreme Court,” he said after the hearing. “It’s a process fraught with delay because no one wants to make a decision that could result in the death of an innocent person.”
For the mother of Terri Lynn Winchell, a Lodi teen murdered in 1981, the time afforded to inmates is a luxury.
“It just wears you out; you want justice,” said Barbara Christian, whose daughter’s body was found in a vineyard 27 years ago this week. “Knowing that he’s alive and well just keeps the pain alive.”
Jurors convicted Michael Angelo Morales of the murder in 1983, and his execution was to be carried out in February 2006 before a last-minute legal challenge plucked Morales from the death chamber. The state’s death penalty has been in limbo since then, pending legal challenges.
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice will hold two more public hearings on the death penalty over the next two months. The commission was created by the state Senate to examine what leads to wrongful convictions.
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