Catholic teaching on capital punishment is clear: If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity with the dignity of the human person (A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005). This teaching is the basis for the U.S. Catholic Bishops opposition to S. 1088, The Streamlined Procedures Act of 2005 (SPA). The legislation attempts to streamline current law and habeas corpus procedures in order to speed up the execution process. The Bishops are opposed because the proposed bill would dramatically diminish the federal courts' ability to review death penalty cases, even in cases of actual innocence. Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA) has not announced when the bill will finally be voted on in Committee, but it could be any time.
Federal Habeas Corpus review is one of the final levels of appeal in the criminal justice system. The primary function of a habeas corpus appeal is to allow the federal court to review a state case and determine whether or not the state has violated any of the convicted person's rights during the trial and appeals processes.
What the Streamlined Procedures Act Will Do?
The Act would severely limit the circumstances under which a death row inmate can obtain federal habeas corpus review of his or her conviction or sentence. For example,
- Federal court review of habeas corpus claims would be allowed only if such claims were not adequately presented to the state courts - at the pleading stage - and only if the claims can show innocence by clear and convincing evidence. This is an unrealistically demanding standard since evidence of innocence often emerges only after years of litigation.
- The bill significantly limits access to DNA testing. In fact numerous individuals who have now established their innocence through DNA would have been denied access to testing if this had been law in the past.
- Strips the federal judicial system of jurisdiction for consideration of habeas petitions based on claims that were procedurally barred in state court, not raised properly, or based on a claim of ineffective counsel. The exception to this is if the claims are based on a new constitutional ruling or if the state waives the ban on habeas petitions.
The Constitution, which governs all citizens, promises everyone the opportunity to have an impartial federal review of their conviction. What is being reviewed is state conduct in a particular case and the federal courts are best equipped to give an objective hearing in such cases.
On average, executions take 11 to 12 years from the time of conviction. Isn't that too long? Surely the process finds errors sooner than this.
Not necessarily. Most of the evidence that has exonerated wrongfully convicted individuals from death row does not generally come to light until years after a conviction, and often after a court or procedural deadline has passed. We should always keep in mind that a missed deadline can be dealt with, but an execution is irreversible.
We are talking about convicted killers, why do they receive so much protection?
Nothing illustrates the need for non-lethal punishment more than the disturbingly large number of death row inmates across our country who have been exonerated (more than 120 since 1973), some within days or hours of being put to death. At a time when there should be more safeguards put in place to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction and to prevent lethal mistakes in death penalty cases, S. 1088 attempts to take away some of the safeguards already in place.
For Further Information
Go to: www.ccedp.org or contact: Andy Rivas 202-541-3190; (fax) 202-541-3339; firstname.lastname@example.org.