Lambs to the slaughter

Laws to speed executions will make it harder to save Death Row's innocent

Randall Dale Adams is married and living a quiet life in Columbus, Ohio, near his mother and family. Clarence Brandley has turned to preaching, opening his own church in Houston.

What the two men have in common, of course, is that each--after years in prison and torturous legal appeals--managed to escape the best efforts of the state of Texas to kill them for crimes they did not commit.

Adams and Brandley are only the most famous of seven men who have been sent to Texas Death Row but released when it became clear that they almost certainly did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted.

Zealous prosecutors, suppressed evidence, perjured testimony, or shoddy police work conspired in various ways to bring the men within days, and in some cases hours, of execution.

Their unjust convictions loom large as both the Texas Legis-lature and the U.S. Congress consider new laws intended to speed up executions by limiting the appeals that Death Row inmates can file.

The federal legislation, called the "Effective Death Penalty Act of 1995," has already cleared the House as part of the Republican crime package. The Texas legislation, known more benignly as House Bill 3, is pending in the Texas Legislature.

The bills would limit, on both the federal and state levels, how much time convicted inmates have to file appeals after they are convicted. They would also change procedural rules, making it harder for defendants to win a court's permission to pursue their claims.

Death penalty supporters, long outraged that more than a decade can easily pass before a convicted capital murderer is actually executed, want the process to go faster.

Men and women guilty of heinous murders, they say, are buying years of time pursuing every appeal available to them under existing state and federal laws. Execution must be swift, they argue, if the spectre of ultimate punishment is to deter other would-be killers.

"The five- and 10-year delays undermine a lot of the value of the death penalty," says David Price, an attorney for the Washington Legal Foundation, a D.C. think tank that supports legislation to speed up executions.

But without the lengthy appeals process, death penalty foes point out, people like Brandley and Adams might now be dead, executed before they were cleared of their alleged crimes.

Those howling for swifter executions, they say, are ignoring the dozens of documented cases in which state courts have sent innocent men to Death Row.

"I think we will see many more people facing death who are actually innocent, and Texas has a horrible track record," says Diann Rust-Tiernay, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Death Penalty Project. "In the end, innocent people will be executed."

Sentencing innocent people to death is not uncommon. A 1993 report prepared by the staff of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights found 48 cases across the nation of capital murder defendants who were ultimately released from Death Row "with significant evidence of their innocence."

The men--including five in Texas--were "living proof that innocent people are sentenced to death," the report concluded.

In many of the cases, more than 10 years of appeals and remarkable legal assistance not available to most Death Row inmates were required to free the men.

Since that report, two other Texas cases have surfaced in which substantial evidence of innocence helped free convicted men.

Choking off death penalty appeals, foes say, will only increase the likelihood that some of those innocent people will be executed. That risk is especially high in Texas, with its established penchant for sending men and women to Death Row.

Texas continues to hold its lead as the nation's most prolific death penalty state. As of last Friday, Death Row held 398 inmates, the most in the country.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court began allowing states to reimpose the death penalty in the late 1970s, Texas has executed 92 people, also the most in the country.

Republican protestations aside, death penalty opponents say, the deck is already handily stacked against people charged with capital crimes.

Virtually all death penalty defendants are poor and get court-appointed attorneys, many of whom are no match for the more experienced prosecutors they face, says Steve Hall of the Texas Re-source Center, a federally funded legal rights group that assists the condemned with their appeals.

The center's attorneys, Hall notes, receive cases after the defendants have already been convicted and sentenced to die.

In many cases, he says, a review of the case file shows that the original court-appointed attorney did not have the time, money or resources to mount a vigorous defense.

Hall's assessment may seem self serving, but it is the same conclusion reached by an outside consultant hired by the Texas Bar Association in 1993 to look at what kind of legal help accused capital murderers receive.

"We believe, in the strongest terms possible, that Texas has already reached the crisis stage in capital representation and that the problem is substantially worse than that faced by any other state with the death penalty," concluded the report by the Spangen-berg Group of Massachusetts.

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