Even though he is a Democrat, Utah Attorney General Paul Van Dam hailed Republican President Bush's crime legislation package Monday -
and was at the White House to listen to the president propose and explain it.A major reason Van Dam likes it has to do with convicted Hi Fi Shop murderer William Andrews, who is sitting on death row at the Utah State Prison.
"As far as I can tell in talking to other states, he may well have been on death row longer than anyone else in the nation (16 years)," Van Dam said. "He is a prime example of why the 36 states with the death penalty are enormously frustrated with the appeals process."
Bush's crime package would strongly limit the number of appeals available. "It would limit them to being filed within a year. It would stop them from dragging on forever," Van Dam said.
Van Dam, who was in Washington for meetings of a national association of attorneys general and was invited with the association to the White House, said most of his colleagues have similar frustrations.
"In fact, we told the president he needs to get rid of multiple appeals before they add the death penalty to other crimes," Van Dam said.
"The bill would add the death penalty for such things as terrorism and serious drug cases. But before you add more death penalty cases to the system, you have to solve the appeals problem."
Van Dam said he is generally impressed with other portions of the bill too. They include: Adding special penalties for crimes involving spousal and child abuse.
- Also adding the death penalty for treason, espionage and use of weapons of "mass destruction" - such as chemical or radiological arms by terrorists.
- Altering court rules that now ban illegally seized evidence to allow its use at trial if police acted in "good faith" in seizing it.
- Adding strict, mandatory sentences for crimes where firearms are used, including a five-year mandatory sentence for any person previously convicted of a drug offense or violent crime caught possessing a gun.
- Doubling from five to ten years the mandatory jail time for using a semi-automatic firearm in a violent crime, and increasing the penalties for theft of a firearm or knowingly making a false statement while buying a firearm.
Van Dam also said he was optimistic that the crime bill could soon pass. President Bush, trying to take advantage of soaring postwar popularity, last week challenged Congress to pass a crime bill within 100 days.
"It is essentially the same bill that passed both houses last year, but fell apart in conference," which was supposed to work out differences in each house's version of the bill, Van Dam said. "Everyone seemed encouraged that it can pass soon."
A major stumbling block - which doomed the bill last year - are disagreements whether the bill should include bans of assault guns and other automatic weapons. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, led a fight to keep such bans out of the bill last year.