A proposal this week by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist for "modest reforms" that will speed up appeals by death row inmates makes good sense and addresses one of greatest frustrations that many citizens have with the justice system.
Rehnquist, in s speech before the American Bar Association, said that appeals should be consolidated so that separate issues are not dragged through the courts one at a time. He also called for imposing deadlines for when appeals can be filed.In connection with the latter point, the chief justice cited the Ted Bundy case. He noted that the Supreme Court turned down three separate emergency pleas on Bundy's behalf just hours before his execution.
"All three," he complained, ". . . were (pursued) simultaneously on the day before the execution of a prisoner who had been on death row for nine years."
The chief justice said - and few could disagree - that such last-second "chaos" has no place in the judicial system and undermines public confidence in the entire process.
No one is advocating a hasty process, or one that curtails the right of convicted persons to appeal to federal courts after a state murder conviction. But there must be some kind of reasonable limitation on the number of appeals and the time involved.
Appeals that drag on for years and years, until the original crime becomes a dusty memory, make a mockery of justice.
The average time in some states between the commission of a crime and the execution of the death penalty is 13 years. Last year, there were 11,000 federal court appeals filed in death penalty cases.
Predictably, lawyers who heard Rehnquist's speech responded with little enthusiasm for even modest reforms, saying that any changes must be carefully thought through.
But after so many years of studying what clearly is a faulty system, it's time that some specific recommendations be made. The appeals process must become a meaningful review of fairness and justice, and not just a legal delaying tactic that seems to have no end.