Magazine article Newsweek

'The Great Writ' Hit: A New Law Will Curb Death-Row Appeals

Magazine article Newsweek

'The Great Writ' Hit: A New Law Will Curb Death-Row Appeals

Article excerpt

ENGLISH JUDGES INVENTED IT. ABRAham Lincoln suspended it. Wrongly convicted prisoners rely on it. And last week Congress and the president bruised it badly.

Known for 300 years as "the great writ," habeas corpus embodies one of the fundamental principles of Anglo-American law: independent courts can review the detention of citizens. It's Latin for "you have the body"; in the tumultuous 17th century, bold British judges used it to free enemies of the crown locked away in the Tower without benefit of trial. Americans have greatly expanded this right. Federal judges can review convictions in state courts--and if necessary reverse them because of a serious problem, such as the absence of evidence. In recent years, the writ has been invoked most dramatically by death-row inmates; since 1976, 50 prisoners have been freed before they could be put to death.

Not everyone who asks for habeas corpus review is innocent, of course--and therein lies the problem. Thousands of petitions fill the federal courts and, in the process, stay the executioner's hand. Habeas "reform," at least in capital-punishment cases, became an easy target for law-and-order politicians and for prosecutors frustrated by delays. "Justice delayed is justice denied," says Georgia's attorney general, Michael Bowers. Last fall Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah attached a severe limit on death-row appeals to President Clinton's antiterrorism bill. Last week Clinton signed it into law.

As in so much other legislation, the Devil is in the details. Under both the old and the new laws, a convict cannot file a habeas petition in federal court until he finishes all his state-court appeals. …

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