Nearly 17 years ago, two drifters randomly stopped at the rural Oklahoma home of Richard and Marilyn Douglass.
Once inside, they robbed, hogtied and shot the family of four and raped 12-year-old Leslie. The two critically wounded children watched their parents die.
Since then, the Douglass children, now grown, have been anguished by a legal system that has kept the two killers alive despite their death sentences.
This week, President Clinton is expected to sign a bill that would speed up such executions by sharply limiting federal appeals. That provision was included in the anti-terrorism bill passed by Congress just before the one-year anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing last week.
“Part of the whole idea of the criminal justice system is allowing the victims to move on with their lives,” says 32-year-old Brooks Douglass, who was 16 at the time of his parents’ murders and who was elected to the state Senate in 1990 pledging to push for similar legislation.
“If you are having to look over your shoulder for 17 years, you find it very difficult to go on if you have to testify time and time again.”
For nearly 15 years, Republicans in Congress have been trying to pass a measure restricting death penalty appeals. This new provision strips power from federal judges to review death-row cases and many other kinds of cases from state courts.
While supported by law enforcement authorities and victims’ rights groups, the measure concerns civil libertarians and defense attorneys, who predict that innocent people will be executed.
Currently, there are 3,061 condemned convicts in the 38 states with the death penalty. Most are appealing their cases, which generally go through at least two rounds of appeals in the three-tiered state courts and then the three-tiered federal courts.
About 40 percent of state-court capital cases that federal courts have reviewed have been overturned, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C., organization opposed to the death penalty. Since 1970, 59 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence, the group says.
“The danger is we could have people on death row or incarcerated who won’t be able to get their cases heard,” said Mark Kappelhoff, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Washington. “There is no doubt in my mind we will have innocent people executed because of this. Swift justice isn’t always correct justice.”
Opponents also say federal appeals will be limited for all people - not just death-row cases, which make up less than 1 percent of all so-called habeas corpus petitions.
Habeas corpus is a Latin phrase that means “You should have the body.” The Habeas Corpus Act, passed in 1867, gave federal judges power to review cases in which a person may be imprisoned in violation of the Constitution.
“The public has been misled into thinking this deals mostly with death penalty cases,” said Paul Levine, a spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “In fact, it applies to anyone convicted in a state court - anti-abortion protesters, tax protesters, business people convicted of white collar violations.”
But lawmakers say they want to end lengthy appeals by convicted murderers. Currently, it takes about eight years for a capital case to move from conviction to execution, according to death penalty experts.
“This will free the judicial process from endless and frivolous appeals from prisoners convicted of capital offenses while victims and families wait helplessly by for years and years for justice to finally be done,” said Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio.
The new measure makes several changes to the Habeas Corpus Act to limit appeals:
Federal judges may overturn state court decisions only if the decisions are an “unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”
Inmates who have lost statecourt appeals will get only one chance to appeal in federal court, curtailing the past practice of repetitive federal tries. The only exception is if there is “clear and convincing” evidence the defendant was innocent.
Instead of delaying indefinitely, inmates must file federal appeals within one year, and in six months in capital cases if the state provides counsel in state-court appeals.
Federal judges would have deadlines for deciding appeals. Federal district judges would have 180 days, and federal appellate judges, the next step, also would have six months.
Even Attorney General Janet Reno voiced some concerns about the measure last week. She said she would have drafted the law differently, preferring a broader standard of review.
But she said this new law does contain safeguards and will provide prompt resolutions so appeals “are not drawn out inordinately and unreasonably over time.”
The provision on appeals is part of a broader anti-terrorism bill that permits the government to deport a suspected terrorist without presenting evidence to a judge.
It also authorizes the federal government to spend $1 billion over the next four years to fight domestic terrorism and requires criminals in federal proceedings to make restitution to their victims.