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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Supreme Court refuses to reconsider death penalty in Arizona case

SCOTUS
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused again Monday to decide whether the death penalty is unconstitutional.

The action came in a case from Arizona in which lawyers asked the court to strike down both the state's capital punishment system and the nation's. 

The court's four liberal justices said Arizona's system, under which most defendants  convicted of first-degree murder are eligible for the death penalty, may be unconstitutional. But they said the case was not ready for the high court's review.

The justices have in recent years sided with death row defendants for specific reasons, ranging from racial discrimination and intellectual disability to incompetent lawyers. But in their most important case, they ruled 5-4 in 2015 that even a controversial type of lethal injection can continue to be used in executions.

That case produced the dissent that led to Monday's order. Justice Stephen Breyer, backed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said then that the nation's 40-year-old system of capital punishment should be reexamined because a declining number of death sentences were sometimes unreliable, often arbitrary, and nearly always led to such long delays before execution that they no longer serve as a deterrent.

Since then, lawyers for death row inmates have tried to get the justices to reconsider whether capital punishment is constitutional. 

"A national consensus has emerged that the death penalty is an unacceptable punishment in any circumstance," former U.S. acting solicitor general Neal Katyal argued in the latest case. "And this court’s opinions, supported by reams of evidence, are trending unmistakably toward that consensus."

His client, Abel Daniel Hidalgo, killed two men in Arizona in 2001 and, by the time he was found and charged, had killed two women in Idaho in 2002.

The question in the case, as in most death penalty disputes, wasn't about guilt or innocence but whether the penalty is dished out fairly. Arizona lists so many potential aggravating circumstances in its capital punishment statute that almost every first-degree murderer is eligible for execution, Katyal claimed.

Arizona officials had asked the court to turn down the case, citing Hidalgo's heinous crimes and refuting claims that the death penalty is unfairly administered. The decline in executions, the state said in court papers, is due largely to problems states have had in obtaining the drugs needed for lethal injections.

"Despite the logistical difficulties, states have continued in their unwavering efforts to constitutionally impose and carry out capital sentences," the state's solicitor general, Dominic Draye, wrote. "If anything, the lengths to which states must presently go is proof of their commitment to maintaining capital punishment."

The court's action was unsigned, but Breyer wrote a 10-page concurrence laying out possible grounds for declaring Arizona's system unconstitutional. He concluded that the factual record was not fully developed. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.

To back up their claim, lawyers for Hidalgo had obtained evidence through public records requests to claim that aggravating circumstances required to seek a death sentence were present in 856 of 866 first-degree murder cases in Maricopa County between 2002 and 2012. That would surpass rates in other states with an active death penalty statute and suggest that the penalty covers too many crimes. 

The court also heard from several groups opposed to the death penalty, such as Amnesty International, and from former Arizona judges, prosecutors, defenders and legislators who agree with opponents.

"Years of experience and study demonstrate that the death penalty serves no legitimate end and is a grossly disproportionate form of punishment," the Fair Punishment Project wrote. 

Source: USA Today, Richard Wolf, March 19, 2018


Supreme Court rejects attempts to restrict, ban death penalty


The U.S. Supreme Court
Lawyers for an Arizona man who killed two people argued the state's capital punishment law was too broad

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to consider whether Arizona's death penalty law is so broad that it's unconstitutional.

The court also passed up an invitation to examine whether capital punishment should be banned nationwide.

Lawyers for an Arizona man, Abel Hidalgo, told the court that the state has loaded up so many factors on the list of death-eligible crimes that virtually everyone convicted of first-degree murder is eligible for the death penalty.

As for the nation as a whole, "states simply cannot provide the guidance necessary to ensure that the penalty is imposed only on the worst offenders. " said Neal Katyal, a Washington lawyer representing Hidalgo. "Nor can states administer the penalty without ensnaring and putting to death the innocent,

Hidalgo was convicted of killing the owner of an auto repair shop in exchange for $1,000 from a gang member. He also killed a bystander. The Arizona courts rejected his claim that the state's death penalty procedures were unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court stopped executions in 1972, ruling that the death sentence was being imposed in a haphazard and unpredictable manner. States responded by requiring juries to evaluate whether certain specific factors were involved in the offense that would justify the death penalty.

The Supreme Court approved the new system, saying it would "minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action" and restrict capital punishment to the worst crimes.

Two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, have recently said the court should re-examine the death penalty, but the other seven members of the court have shown no similar concerns.

States executed 23 prisoners in 2017, the second lowest total since 1991. Only 2016's figure was lower.

Public approval for the death penalty is also at historic lows. The latest Gallup poll found 55 percent of respondents said they supported it. In 1994, at the height of public acceptance, approval was at 80 percent.

Source: NBC News, Pete Williams, March 19, 2017


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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