Monday, February 4, 2008

RICHMOND (AP) — A state lawmaker wants to change legislation passed by the General Assembly in the mid-1990s that, in effect, allowed execution dates to be set before appeals are considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The legislation was intended to shorten the appeals process, which can be frustrating to prosecutors and families of murder victims.

It seemed to have worked. Senior Assistant Attorney General Katherine Baldwin told a Senate committee that the average time between affirmation on direct appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court and execution was cut roughly in half, to 3.8 years, after the law took effect in 1995. An appeal to the Virginia high court is the first step in the process that can eventually reach the Supreme Court.

Sen. John S. Edwards, Roanoke Democrat, is now proposing a bill that would prohibit setting an execution date until after the country’s highest court rules on an appeal on the merits of the case.

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted 6-5 last week to endorse the measure, which could be considered by the full Senate as early as Wednesday.

The attorney general’s office opposes the legislation. Miss Baldwin told the committee that the possibility of an execution date being set encourages death-row inmates to file their appeals in a timely manner.

“This was a bill … that was pro-victims and victims’ families because of the horrendous delays,” she told the committee.

Henry County Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert L. Bushnell, who heads the Virginia Commonwealths Attorneys Association, agreed.

“It provides closure for survivors, but more importantly closure for the people of Virginia,” he said.

But supporters of Mr. Edwards’ bill say the law can put too much pressure on appellate attorneys, forcing them to draft an appeal, a request for a stay and a clemency petition in a compressed time period.

“If you’re a proponent of the death penalty, the last thing you should want is a perception of a rush to judgment and undermining the confidence of the public on carrying out the death sentence,” former state Attorney General Anthony F. Troy said.

Mr. Troy also spoke in favor of the Edwards bill at the committee meeting. He said every other state in the federal 4th Circuit — Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina — allows execution dates to be set only after the Supreme Court has ruled.

“If we’re going to impose the ultimate penalty, let them have the one full review without the pressure of an execution date,” he said.

Mr. Troy and Mr. Edwards also argued that the 1995 law is no longer necessary because the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed by Congress in 1996, streamlined the appellate process.

The two sides disagree on how much time Mr. Edwards’ bill would add to the appeals process.

Mr. Troy said it would be no more than an additional 60 days. Miss Baldwin said the delay would be “months and months.”

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