Death penalty appeal changes approved by Senate committee

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Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison

Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison

A Senate committee Wednesday approved legislation aimed at shortening the time taken during the appeals process in death penalty cases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 7 to 1, with one abstention, to approve the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison. It now moves to the full Senate.

The legislation focuses on two of the three phases of a death penalty appeal process. In the first, known as a direct appeal, issues and facts of the case are addressed. The direct appeals process is followed by a phase known as a Rule 32 process, where issues such as the effectiveness of counsel and access to evidence are raised. Both appeal processes can go as high as the U.S. Supreme Court, and under current state law, the first round of appeals must be exhausted before the second can begin.

The proposal would put both the first and second rounds of appeals on a dual track process. If implemented, those convicted of a capital crime would have to file their Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of beginning the direct appeal process. In addition, a circuit court would have to rule on a Rule 32 appeal within 180 days of a direct appeal process being concluded.

Family members of crime victims testified in a public hearing Tuesday that the long appeals process can force them to relive the traumas their relatives suffered Holtzclaw told the committee that most of those appealing the cases had been found guilty of their crimes.

“We can’t lose sight of fact these people were found guilty in the jury process and condemned,” he said.

Critics of the legislation said the state already provides inadequate counsel to death row inmates, and suggested the change in the appeals process would further burden a system straining to keep up. Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, said he feared that trying to assuage the pain of crime victims could lead to those wrongfully condemned being sent to the death chamber.

“We’re willing to take out all these folks who may be innocent,” he said. “We’re willing to take them out to address what you just said.”

– posted by Brian Lyman

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