Wednesday, May 04, 2005

No speed up for Texas death penalty via HB 268

Texas won't choose to become the first state to opt in to a federal "fast track" appeals system, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa declared in response to testimony yesterday afternoon in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Hinojosa is carrying HB 268 in the Senate, which would alter the qualifications for attorneys in death penalty cases. House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Terry Keel carried the bill in the House, where the bill had a contentious hearing.

Other concerns about lessening qualifications seem to hinge on the queston of whether prosecutors in their first death penalty case on the defense side can be sufficiently sympathetic toward the killer to compile a thorough social history and argue the mitigation portion at sentencing adequately. I'm inclined to think it'd be a good idea to second chair a case once before taking on that primary responsibility, but reasonable people can disagree about that. Certainly some lawyers with extensive death penalty defense experience have proven awful. Opting in to the federal fast track system, though - given Texas' egregious Court of Criminal Appeals - would be a disaster.

The now-off-the-table"opt-in" status would have caused a truncated federal habeas process - including cutting the filing deadline in half and allowing only one stay of execution regardless of the issues in the case. Texas is the only state in the country to have executed inmates (at least four) whose attorneys missed the current federal habeas filing deadline. Hinojosa said he and Chairman Keel, working with advocates, agreed not to "opt in."

Most of the committee was absent last night, so there was no way to get a sense of where things stood on the legislation, but the opt-in was the Oh-my-God-you're-going-to-do-what? part of this bill, so no matter what that's a great relief.

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