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Governor Assails U.S. Delays of Death Cases

June 17, 1989|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Gov. George Deukmejian on Friday assailed long delays in resolving capital cases and urged that federal judges curtail reviews of constitutional challenges to death sentences already upheld in state courts.

"Federal courts should accept these petitions as seldom as is necessary," said Deukmejian, appearing at a hearing on behalf of the National Governors Assn. "If there has been a full and fair adjudication of the issues in state courts, they should accept that."

The governor said that delay in reviewing appeals prevents capital punishment from serving as an effective deterrent to crime and enables criminals to "thumb their noses at the law," knowing that even if they are caught, they still can avoid paying the full price.

Deukmejian testified before a special task force of judges and other legal authorities that is studying time-consuming delay, repetitive appeals, court congestion and other problems that critics say are plaguing federal constitutional challenges in capital cases.

Such challenges are made in federal habeas corpus petitions that are filed after a defendant's conviction and sentence have been upheld in state courts. The petitions are restricted to claims of violation of federal constitutional rights, but the ability to file them has been substantially expanded by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years. Currently, about 9,500 federal habeas corpus petitions are being filed annually in the United States, an estimated 5% of them in capital cases.

The 11-member panel, sponsored by the American Bar Assn. and co-chaired by California Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, is receiving testimony from prosecutors, defense attorneys and officials in a series of nationwide hearings. The panel began two days of proceedings here at a time when there is growing concern among judges, lawyers and other authorities over the prospect of long delays in the review of California capital cases in the federal courts.

The state Supreme Court under Lucas has sharply accelerated its review of death-penalty cases, upholding 54 capital sentences in just two years. But the death verdicts upheld by the state court are being challenged further in what officials expect will be a wave of constitutional appeals in the federal courts.

Deukmejian and other witnesses cited as an example of their concern the case of Robert Alton Harris, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of two youths in San Diego in 1978. His is the furthest along of any California capital case now in the federal court system and has been before federal judges since 1982.

Harris' conviction and sentence were upheld in separate appeals by the state Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court and, last July, by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. But his subsequent petition for a rehearing before the federal appellate court is pending--nearly a full year later.

The governor urged the panelists to seek reforms in the process that would impose new time limits on federal habeas corpus appeals and require federal judges to defer to the factual findings made by state courts.

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. George M. Palmer told the panel there could be substantial additional delays when capital cases that have been in the state courts for years begin to flow into the federal courts. "When the bulk of the California cases hits the federal system, the road to final judgments will be long indeed," he said.

To date, six habeas corpus petitions from condemned California inmates have been filed in federal courts. But the number is expected to increase considerably in coming months and a special committee of judges, lawyers and officials has been at work preparing new procedures to deal with the influx.

In an apparent rebuke to Deukmejian, San Francisco attorney Dennis P. Riordan, representing California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a group of defense lawyers, said that appeals to the federal courts would present little problem if state court judges would act to protect the rights of capital defendants.

Riordan noted that unlike federal judges, state judges do not enjoy lifetime tenure and warned that thus they are far more subject to election considerations and other political pressures that could influence their rulings in capital cases.

Alluding to the bitter 1986 California election that saw three high court members rejected by the voters, largely because of their reluctance to affirm death judgments, Riordan said:

"A state judge who rules in favor of any capital defendant on any issue can be assured his ruling, no matter how clearly dictated by controlling constitutional precedent, will be publicly attacked by an opportunistic politician too dense to understand our system of constitutional rights or too cynical to care about its preservation."

Riordan observed that in the seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, federal appeal courts, reviewing cases mainly from the South, found constitutional violations in 73% of the state court death rulings they reviewed.

Now, as more cases from the Western states are taken to federal courts, there is no less reason for careful review of death verdicts, he said.

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