Supreme Court Upholds Law That Speeds Up Death Row Appeals

By: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

In late April, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.

President Bill Clinton signed this act into law essentially to speed up the appeals process for death row cases by making it more difficult for federal courts to intervene, review and challenge decisions made by state courts.

By a 5-4 vote, the justices upheld the provision of the law that limits the authority of federal judges to order new trials, even when there is clear evidence that a defendant's constitutional rights are being violated. Now, defendants must demonstrate not only that the state courts were incorrect but that those courts were "unreasonable."

This is an impossible and ridiculous standard. It means that one can be wrongfully convicted -- but if it was done in a "reasonable" way, then there's no basis for appeal.

However, the Supreme Court did order new hearings in the cases of two Virginia death row inmates. In one case, a prosecutor withheld the fact that the jury forewoman had been married to an officer investigating the murder of which the defendant was accused -- and that the prosecutor had subsequently represented that woman in divorce proceedings. The other case was of a man who had an incompetent court-appointed lawyer to handle his defense.

This Supreme Court decision has obvious implications in the case of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia will be in federal court soon seeking to have his original sham of a trial thrown out and a new trial. The actual ruling by the Supreme Court does nothing to really improve or harm Mumia's chance at getting a new trial. But the justices set a precedent that may be helpful in Mumia's case.

While the justices tap-danced around the issue of federal review of cases, the fact that they ordered hearings in the two death penalty cases on the basis of constitutional claims may work in the favor of many death row prisoners who are making appeals in the federal courts.

That the Supreme Court made any concession at all on this law shows that the momentum for a national moratorium is having an impact on the highest echelons of the criminal justice system.