New law will cut Death Row appeal rights

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Brushing aside strong protests by civil liberties groups, the United States Congress gave final passage yesterday to legislation which will sharply reduce the appeal rights of "death row" inmates and probably lead to a significant increase in the number of executions here.

The measure, part of an anti-terrorism bill which Congress wants to send to the White House to mark the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, was approved in the Senate by an overwhelming margin of 91-8, and by a scarcely less resounding 293-133 majority in the House. Though he has misgivings about other provisions in the legislation, President Bill Clinton has indicated that he will sign it into law.

The changes, long demanded by state prosecutors and relatives of victims, are aimed at reducing the long delays between sentencing and execution of a convicted murderer, resulting from the multiple possibilities of appeal offered by the parallel state and federal judicial structures of the US.

Under existing habeas corpus rules an appellant has recourse to three layers of state courts, and three levels of federal courts. Skilfully manipulated, the process can be spun out for decades.

At present more than 3,000 prisoners are on death row. According to the anti-capital punishment Death Penalty Information Center here, the average wait between conviction and execution is eight years, but in some cases it can be 20 years or more. In California alone 436 people are on death row, yet the state has only executed three people since capital punishment was restored in 1977.

The new Bill, due for a House vote later yesterday, sharply limits the rights of a federal judge to intervene in state cases. Henceforth he will only be able to overturn a death sentence passed by a state court if it was caused by "an unreasonable application of federal law". Inmates who have lost appeals in state courts will be allowed only one appeal to the federal court, which must be filed within a year. The federal court must then give its ruling within six months.

Advocates of capital punishment say the appeals process should thus be kept to two years or so, but opponents insist that the new rules will virtually guarantee miscarriages of justice and the execution of innocent people. In 1995, 56 executions took place in the US. That figure could rise to 100 or more in future years, experts say.