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Cal. Supreme Reaffirms Death Penalty Delays

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The California Supreme Court yesterday issued a pair of companion cases addressing state habeas claims by death row inmates.  Despite the state's argument to the contrary, the court reaffirmed its practice of accepting "shell petitions" in order to toll the statute of limitations for federal habeas petitions.  

In both cases, the inmates were sentenced to death and shortly thereafter requested habeas counsel, for which there is a statutory right in California.  In both cases, the court's appointment of counsel took a significant amount of time - in one case (In re Jimenez), it took the court eight and a half years for the court to appoint counsel, and in the other (In re Morgan) the court still had "not found qualified counsel willing to accept the appointment" after 13 years.  The court stated that these delays are common because "[q]uite few in number are the attorneys who meet this court's standards for representation and are willing to represent capital inmates in habeas corpus proceedings."  (The court's standards are listed in a footnote on page 6 of the In re Morgan opinion.)  Until the court finds suitable counsel, the court reaffirmed that the inmate may file a cursory "shell petition" to preserve his right to seek later relief in the federal courts.  The court also upheld its practice of, upon appointment of counsel, allowing the counsel to amend the habeas petition for up to 36 months.

Justice Corrigan wrote separately against the practice, noting that allowing shell petitions only burdens the court and the public by permitting capital inmates to "languish without representation for several years."  Justice Corrigan also stated that while the court is charged with the obligation to provide habeas counsel to these inmates, it "is not, however, [the court's] proper role to help one class of convicted inmates evade a federal statute of limitations."

1 Comment

The lack of seriousness in following through with the jury's judgment is just mind-boggling. A number of remedies come to mind, including a statute requiring the state Supreme Court to appoint counsel within 90 days. If there is going to be a statutory requirement for habeas counsel, let there be some teeth in it.

I can't think of any other area of the law where delays of this kind would be tolerated.

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