The Senate overwhelmingly approved counterterrorism legislation Wednesday night that would significantly accelerate executions of death row inmates around the country and make it more difficult for all federal and state prisoners to appeal their convictions.
By a vote of 91-8, the Senate moved the legislation to the House, where it also enjoys widespread support. Republican leaders have vowed to complete work on the measure by Friday, the first anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Senior aides to President Clinton have said they expect him to sign the measure even though it lacks several provisions he had sought and has been called only half a counterterrorism bill by his supporters.
Clinton had proposed legislation that included provisions enlarging the authority of federal agents to wiretap suspects and permitting law enforcement officials to consult with the military in certain cases. Those measures were dropped by Congress after the National Rifle Association lobbied heavily against them, arguing they were too intrusive.
The legislation adopted Wednesday would fulfill a drive by conservatives that began under President Reagan to rewrite the rules governing habeas corpus, the only legal avenue for state inmates to obtain a federal review of their cases.
It would impose tougher standards for habeas corpus petitions and set new and stringent deadlines on when such petitions could be filed. It also would make it impossible for most prisoners - both on and off death row - to file more than one habeas corpus appeal.
Sen. Bob Dole, Senate majority leader and likely Republican candidate for president, said the legislation is the “toughest anti-terrorism measure ever to become law” and that its “heart and soul,” the changes in habeas corpus appeals, would “curb the endless frivolous appeals” by death row inmates.
But many civil liberties organizations and lawyers groups said the legislation would trample on the constitutional rights of convicts by closing the door for federal review of their cases, and the groups said they plan to challenge the constitutionality of the new restrictions.
The groups also predicted that the measure would inevitably lead to the prolonged imprisonment of some innocent people and the execution of others.
“The legislation not only ignores the international trend away from capital punishment, but also violates the spirit of international norms by proposing to make executions more common and errors in capital cases more likely,” said Holly Burkhalter, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, an international human-rights organization.
Last month the White House said in a statement of administration policy that several provisions about habeas corpus appeals might be considered unconstitutional, although generally the administration has said it supported efforts to impose time limits on such appeals and reduce the number of reviews.
The legislation would authorize the federal government to spend $1 billion over the next four years to combat terrorism.
The legislation was opposed by one Republican, Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, and seven Democrats: Sens. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Paul Simon of Illinois. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., did not vote.
Many of the provisions apply not only in death-penalty cases but to any prisoner seeking to challenge the constitutionality of a case in federal court.
Moynihan, D-N.Y., described habeas corpus Wednesday as “one of the fundamental civil liberties on which every civilized society” is based and said the bill would have “confounded the framers” of the Constitution.
“If we agree to this, what will we be agreeing to next?” Moynihan asked.
In response, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, described the provisions as “long-overdue” and said opposition stems largely from critics of capital punishment. Hatch rejected assertions that proponents were tampering with basic constitutional rights, saying they were simply changing the statutory rules that implement them.
All day Democrats introduced amendments to make the legislation tougher, for example, by extending the statute of limitations for certain crimes and restoring the military assistance and wiretap provisions that the president had sought. But Republicans, fearing that the amendments would derail the measure, mustered the votes to reject them.
The Republicans said that if the amendments were adopted, the legislation would be doomed because conservative members of the House, allied with some civil-liberties advocates, could kill it.
“It’s kind of the world turned upside down,” said Hatch, the Utah Republican who co-sponsored the legislation, at one point in the debate when the chamber was considering a Democratic amendment to restore a provision enhancing the government’s wiretapping authority.
“I remember years ago when the conservatives voted to increase wiretap authority and the liberals raised concern about it, and now it’s the liberals who want to expand the authority and some conservatives who are concerned about it.”
xxxx 1. HABEAS CORPUS A writ of habeas corpus is a way for federal judges to assess whether a defendant’s conviction is unconstitutional because, for example, his right to a fair trial was infringed. The writ orders the state to produce the prisoner so that he can make his case to a federal court.
2. ANNIVERSARY Friday, the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, is the anniversary of several other events important to the militia and anti-government movement. April 19, 1775 - The Revolutionary War begins with British Redcoats and American colonists facing off at Lexington and Concord, Mass. April 19, 1943 - Hitler’s Nazis storm the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, killing 60,000 Jews. Some people compare the Nazi assault to the federal sieges at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge. April 19, 1993 - Federal agents launch the final assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The building burns to the ground and kills more than 90 people. April 19, 1995 - White supremacist Richard Snell is executed in Arkansas for the murders of two people. Snell and Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler were acquitted in Arkansas in 1988 of plotting to overthrow the federal government.
3. KEY PROVISIONS OF TERRORISM BILL The House-Senate compromise anti-terrorism bill would: Limit appeals to federal courts by prisoners, including death-row inmates. Make it a federal crime to commit an international terrorist attack in the United States, punishable by execution if a death occurred. Make using the United States as a base to plan a terrorist attack overseas a federal crime. Make it a federal offense to kill or try to kill any federal employee or former employee because of that person’s work, punishable by execution if a death occurred. Require convicted criminals to pay restitution to their victims. Give the executive branch new authority to designate foreign terrorist groups - subject to congressional and judicial review - and let the government freeze assets of foreign terrorists before the designation becomes public. Ban fund raising for foreign terrorist organizations. Expedite deportation of alien terrorists, allowing secret evidence to be used while disclosing only an unclassified version to the alien. Bar from the country members or representatives of foreign terrorist groups. Allow U.S. citizens to sue foreign states for acts of terrorism. Require courts to provide closed-circuit television coverage of proceedings to the original venue, when a trial is moved away from the scene of a crime. The provision was prompted by the move of the Oklahoma City bombing trial to Denver. Require plastic explosives to carry markers that can be traced and require a study on such identifiers for other explosives. Facilitate deportation of criminal aliens. Authorize $1 billion for federal and state law enforcement over four years. - Associated Press