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Streamline or steamroll?



Published: Sat, July 16, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Los Angeles Times: There is a growing awareness in this country, given a growing number of exonerations based on DNA and other evidence, that it's too easy for innocent people to land on death row. These cases help explain why public support for the death penalty has been eroding.

The U.S. Supreme Court is increasingly alarmed by the quality of legal representation afforded defendants in capital cases, and some states are hesitant to apply the death penalty given mounting doubts about the level of error built into their judicial systems. So it's the opposite of logic to see some in Congress moving the other way, seeking to curtail the ability of federal courts to hear claims of an improper trial from defendants convicted in state court.

The Senate Wednesday holds a hearing on the ill-advised and Orwellian-sounding Streamlined Procedures Act. What this legislation and its House companion threaten to streamline is the execution or lifetime incarceration of the innocent. The federal judiciary is the ultimate guarantor of Americans' constitutional rights, including the right to due process, and it's sad to see members of Congress (including California's former attorney general, GOP Rep. Dan Lungren) eager to further limit federal oversight over flawed state proceedings.

Competent counsel

The centerpiece of the legislation would eliminate the review of most claims for cases coming out of states that the U.S. Department of Justice has certified as providing defendants with competent counsel. Should we leave it up to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, he of the torture memos, to pass judgment on the quality of representation given convicts in Texas? Sounds like a great idea if you are a state prosecutor annoyed at those pesky federal judges.

The measure may even be unconstitutional -- it's for a federal court, not a federal prosecutor, to determine whether states are violating the U.S. Constitution.

To sell their "streamlining" law, its proponents are offering to leave the door to the federal courthouse ajar for defendants who can point to evidence of their actual innocence. This is a cynical ploy. It's pretty hard to produce such evidence if your right to a competent lawyer has been denied, or if a prosecutor got someone to lie on the witness stand.




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