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A rush to executions

November 20, 2005

CHINA HAS A BRUTALLY EFFICIENT system of capital punishment. Sentences can be carried out within months of conviction, sometimes in mobile lethal-injection vans. The cost is low -- $87 per execution. Appeals are limited and stacked in favor of the prosecution. And although the government does not issue statistics, estimates of the number of executions in China range upward from 3,000 a year.

Most Americans would be appalled at China's system, which was described by The Times' Mark Magnier in an article published in September. Yet efficiency is one of the main arguments for proposed federal legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), to limit death penalty appeals in the United States. No one argues that the proposed curbs on access to federal courts would make the U.S. system as unjust as China's. And both executions and capital convictions are dropping sharply in the U.S. as doubts about the death penalty rise.

So why are some members of Congress pushing so hard to make executions easier? It's certainly a distraction from more pressing issues, such as the war in Iraq and the budget deficit. Maybe that's the point.

The Senate version of the bill (blandly called the Streamlined Procedures Act) is heading for a vote in the Judiciary Committee. Its most offensive provision would curtail the use of writs of habeas corpus, which allow plaintiffs to move death penalty cases into federal courts on constitutional grounds after state appeals are exhausted. Faced with the opposition of 49 of 50 state chief justices, along with the American Bar Assn. and numerous law enforcement and human rights organizations, supporters have already softened the Senate proposal, and compromise could further alleviate its effects.

Softer or not, however, the measure would still result in people whose guilt (or degree of guilt) is in doubt being put to death or left to rot in prison. States' protections vary widely, and many are far weaker than California's. In federal court, it is not uncommon to see cases in which prosecutors or police are suspected of hiding evidence, witness testimony is questionable, racial bias in jury selection is at issue or DNA evidence may yet be obtained.

The current issue of Law Enforcement News, for instance, details problems with the collection, storage and analysis of DNA evidence. Other recent studies have quantified the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, especially across racial lines. And in an Alabama appeals court, an inmate who has spent 19 years on death row is now presenting evidence that the gun the state says he used in his crime was too rusty and dilapidated to fire. What's more, FBI experts say the bullets from the crime scene don't match the gun. If the Alabama courts were to reject these arguments, and the bill now being considered in the Senate becomes law, the inmate could be barred from pursuing his case in federal court.

Meanwhile, provisions in the renewal of the Patriot Act would make it easier for prosecutors to win the death penalty in federal trials. They could even get a second chance if a jury deadlocked on the penalty.

Science and history are making it increasingly clear that there is no way to reconcile speedy justice and the death penalty. While Congress is trying to make executions easier, many states and the Supreme Court are working to make the system more fair -- and the death penalty more rare.

Even in politics, opposition to the death penalty is no longer as toxic as it was a decade ago. The new governors-elect of Virginia and New Jersey were elected despite their opposition to the penalty. California's death row holds more than 600 inmates, yet each execution raises a storm of argument, as the scheduled Dec. 13 execution of former Crips gang leader Stanley "Tookie" Williams illustrates.

A civilized society does not risk a mistake that would take a life. Restricting the appeals process in death penalty cases simply turns back the clock to a time of greater injustice. But Americans would be just as safe, and increasingly just as satisfied, with an ultimate sentence of life in prison.

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