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Lengthy Court Delays in Death Penalty Cases

April 13, 1985

I must object to the characterization of my testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 19, as reported in The Times.

Your paper indicates that I conceded "that an unwielding legal system--rather than political foot-dragging by the state Supreme Court--often is responsible for delays in reviewing death penalty cases." Your reporter missed my point. The legal delays in the unwielding legal system is due almost entirely to the confusion and uncertainty in the law due to the fact that numerous cases have been pending before the California Supreme Court for years.

On Jan. 10, 1984 the court heard arguments in the Burgener case. In this case the defense is challenging an instruction that is given in every death penalty case. More than a year has passed since this case was argued and yet the court has not published its opinion. If the court overturns the Burgener case, it is likely that more than 100 cases will have to be retried.

There are other cases in which the Supreme Court has delayed even longer in publishing its opinion. There are two cases that were argued in 1982 and four heard in 1983 where the prosecution is still waiting for the court to settle various areas of law. Indecision by the Supreme Court requires prosecutors to consult a crystal ball to anticipate the Supreme Court's future rulings.

Although some may argue that 150 days is not enough time for the court to dispose of a case, no one can seriously defend the court when it has failed to schedule arguments in two cases that have been completely briefed since 1981.

The point I wish to make is that the capital punishment procedure has become unnecessarily complex and surreal due to the procrastination and delays by the Supreme Court.


Undersecretary, Youth and Adult

Correctional Agency


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