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Published on Saturday, April 22, 2000 in the St Louis Post-Dispatch
Drive-Through Executions
IN the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Congress quickly tapped a growing national sentiment to get tougher on criminals by passing a law intended to speed up executions. The 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, limiting inmates' federal appeals, received its first Supreme Court interpretation Tuesday. The high court issued a close ruling that preserved some powers of federal judges to review verdicts of state courts, but created one new standard that could prevent an inmate from obtaining a federal appeal even if his state conviction was incorrect.

It is now all right to deny an appeal if the state verdict was wrong, as long as it was a "reasonable" application of federal law. How can a conviction be both wrong and reasonable?

The appeals decision is part of the high court's 15-year retreat from centuries-old habeas corpus rights. Coinciding with the 1976 reinstatement of the death penalty, the rolling back of federal appeals is aimed at shortening the time between conviction and execution. While many federal appeals are baseless, or stalling tactics, the conservative court may be over-correcting. It is time to seriously ask, how fast is too fast?

The 87 death row inmates who were found, upon appeal, to have been wrongly convicted needed an average of seven years each to prove their innocence. Last year our nation executed 98 people -- a record in the modern era of the death penalty. Illinois Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty after the state exonerated more death row inmates than it had executed since 1977. Do we really need to go faster? Or do we in fact, as Mr. Ryan concluded, need to slow down and stop putting people to death while determining whether our get-tougher justice system is convicting the innocent at the same pace as the guilty?

This same court heard arguments Wednesday on the future of the "Miranda" warnings given by police, advising those they arrest of their right to remain silent and have an attorney present. Must we also chip away at this 34-year-old right?

We want to feel safer in our neighborhoods and workplaces. But we are attacking only half the problem -- becoming a nation more intent on punishment than prevention. We'd rather build new prisons than new schools offering real alternatives to careers of crime. We'd rather arm ourselves than curtail the astounding proliferation of handguns and military-style rifles. In our desire to convict and punish those truly guilty of heinous crimes, do we really want to condemn innocent people along the way by not advising them of their rights when they're arrested, and then not letting them appeal wrong convictions arrived at in this indefinable, "reasonable" manner? It is difficult to define precisely when and how we cross the line from a nation of blind justice to one of blind retribution and revenge.

2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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