Friday, June 22, 2007

Tzedek tzedek

A Jewish court of sages which executed one person in seven years was called a murderous court. “One in seventy years,” says Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah.

— Mishna Makkot 1:20

First, last week the US Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision (the majority composed mainly of Bush Sr./Jr. appointees), that a prisoner had lost his right to appeal his sentence because he had missed by three days the deadline for filing an appeal — even though a federal judge had given him the wrong date.

It was a cruel ruling that casts the majority of the high court’s justices as more concerned with narrow procedural detail than in doing justice.

Then, this week the high court refused to hear an appeal by eight Alabama death-row inmates who, in 2001, sued to contest the fact that the state that has condemned them to death is the only state in the Union that does not provide condemned prisoners with legal counsel to challenge their sentences after the first post-sentencing appeal.

Scott Michel, of ABC News’ Law & Justice Unit, notes that these later stages of review, which usually challenge the fairness of a conviction or the sentence meted out, are particularly crucial because these “reviews are often the only way to challenge a death sentence based on newly discovered evidence, such as DNA evidence, a biased jury or … an incompetent trial lawyer.”

Moreover, Michel adds, such post-conviction reviews “have resulted in hundreds of exonerations or reduced sentences nationwide, and every state other than Alabama has opted to provide death row inmates with free lawyers for those appeals.”

Alabama Attorney General Troy King, arguing against the suit, said that the state had no legal obligation to provide legal counsel after an inmate’s initial appeal, and added that, in any event, most inmates have attorneys.

Nonetheless, noted The Birminham News’s Stan Diel, three former Alabama Supreme Court justices, a former appellate judge and three former presidents of the Alabama State Bar filed a brief in favor of the death-row inmates’ suit and urged the US Supreme Court to take up the case.

As matters currently stand, the fates of the eight inmates facing execution rest on their ability to engage volunteer lawyers to conduct their appeals — a dicey prospect, given the costs of conducting investigations, interviews and legal research.

Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, who acted as the inmates’ attorney in their petition to the US Supreme Court, told AP reporter Bob Johnson, “We do not have a system that depends on volunteer judges or volunteer prosecutors … We should not have a system that depends on volunteer defense attorneys.”

He added, to Scott Michel: “To say the state doesn’t have to do anything because a volunteer will show up is an abdication of the state’s responsibility.”

Adam Simms

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