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Death Row Reforms Go to Senate

July 19, 2002|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — Legislation to reform the death penalty by giving people on death row access to DNA testing and improving the quality of lawyers in capital cases was backed by a key Senate committee Thursday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the "Innocence Protection Act" by a 12-7 vote, with all the Democrats and two Republicans backing it.

The bill now goes to the full Senate.

Parallel legislation has been proposed in the House .

The legislation comes amid growing debate about the administration of the death penalty since its reinstatement in the 1970s.

More than 100 people in 24 states have been released from death row since 1973, two states have enacted moratoriums on executions and the Supreme Court has issued two recent rulings curtailing the penalty's use.

The bill would give people convicted of federal capital crimes access to post-conviction DNA testing and require states to set up similar systems to qualify for certain federal funds.

It would also give states grants to improve the quality of legal counsel in death penalty cases to put an end to what Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, called the "sleeping lawyer syndrome," a reference to some cases in which lawyers have dozed off in capital cases.

It would also guarantee that if the Supreme Court agrees to hear a death penalty appeal, it has to automatically grant a stay of execution, ending what Leahy called a "bizarre spectacle" of the high court agreeing to hear a case after the execution date.

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