Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo

Stephen Bright and Virgina Sloan of the Southern Center for Human Rights, make the case that Congress should grant death row inmates the same degree of judicial review extended to Terry Schiavo.

Proponents of the law that required federal court review of the Terri Schiavo case said that all possible protections should be available when a human life is at stake. Said Senator Mel Martinez, R-Fla., "We will simply be allowing the federal judge to give one last review, one last look in a case that has so many questions, that has so many anxieties, and that will provide us the kind of assurance before the ultimate fate of this woman is decided to know that we did all we could do and that every last measure of review was given her, just like it would have been given to a death row inmate convicted and sentenced to die."

But, Martinez was wrong because since 1996 when Congress enacted the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), those sentenced to death have been prevented from receiving a full review in the courts. There are other obstacles as well.

In capital cases, the law prevents federal courts from considering any issue not raised and decided in state court, no matter how important the claim or why it was not presented. The most common reason is the deficient quality of lawyers appointed to defend poor people accused of capital crimes. They have been represented by lawyers who were intoxicated, slept during trial and, no matter how well meaning, lacked the knowledge, skills and resources to defend a capital case. If a lawyer fails to raise an issue in the state courts, a federal court is prevented from ruling on it, no matter how valid it may be. Every day, people are paying with their lives because of these restrictions.

Why it matters:

There is substantial risk of error in these cases. A Columbia University study found that, before AEDPA, federal courts identified serious constitutional violations in an astounding two-thirds of cases in which state courts had upheld death sentences. Recently, more than 250 prisoners, including more than 100 who had been condemned to death, have been exonerated. Some of the death row inmates, who had come within hours of being executed, were freed not because the courts protected them, but because journalists, law and journalism students, and others unconnected with the judicial system discovered evidence of their innocence.

What we should do:

The Schiavo law supporters appeared to agree that in life-or-death cases, there should be no obstacles to full federal court review. Senator Rick Santorum, R-Pa., compared the Schiavo bill to "a horrific death penalty case in California," and urged his colleagues "to understand that [as in that case,] there is a proper role for Federal courts to look to make sure that due process was followed."

The founders gave federal judges lifetime tenure to protect them from political pressures, so they could decide cases in good faith and according to the law, no matter what public opinion demanded. The exonerations of people in prison and on death row have taught Americans a hard lesson-that our criminal justice system is fallible, and that a state court may convict the wrong person. This is especially true in capital cases, which engender great passions and place enormous pressures on judges and juries to convict and impose a death sentence. Congress should pass legislation providing for the same full federal court review of life and death decisions in capital cases that it provided for a single person in the Schiavo law. [our emphasis]

Note: "Stephen B. Bright is the H. Lee Sarokin Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and teaches at Yale Law School. Virginia E. Sloan, a member of the Center's board of directors, is the president of the Constitution Project and was a lawyer with the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee from 1980 to 1995."

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    Re: Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo (none / 0) (#1)
    by ppjakajim on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:58 PM EST
    Works for me. Problem is, the judge didn't review the facts, just the process.

    Re: Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo (none / 0) (#2)
    by roger on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:58 PM EST
    That's how appellate courts work, Jim. They review the legal process. The facts are determined by the jury. Always been that way

    Re: Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo (none / 0) (#3)
    by ppjakajim on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:58 PM EST
    Roger - I understand. But the bill directed the judge to review the facts, which he didn't do. Now maybe that was unconstitutional. But he didn't rule so. He just didn't do it. I think that's wrong. A lot of people agree with me. And that's what is sparking the current debate.

    Re: Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo (none / 0) (#4)
    by roger on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:58 PM EST
    Jim, You say that you dont know if the judge was given illegal instructions that he may have declined to follow, but you fault that judge for not committing a (possibly) illegal act? You are upset at a judge insisting on following the law? LOL!

    Re: Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo (none / 0) (#5)
    by ppjakajim on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:58 PM EST
    No, I am upset that he didn't declare the bill unconstitutional, if indeed it was. Instead he slow walked around it. That is pure nonsense and the good folks in the Red states see it as that.

    Re: Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo (none / 0) (#6)
    by glanton on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:58 PM EST
    Silly Jim, thinks this had anything to do with the "good folks in the red states." Usually the GOP bastards in Washington keep their cool and thus manage to affect respect for voters. But in their haste to make a statement they stepped in it big time: they actually showed who they are and what they're after And everyone in all states saw through it. People everywhere running to get living wills drawn up to keep the dogs out of their lives. To those few, like Jim, who still believe the GOP and the lemonade stand media did the right thing with Shiavo: Please, keep talking about it. I hope people remember it in 2006.

    Re: Death Row Inmates and Terry Schiavo (none / 0) (#7)
    by Pete Guither on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 12:58:58 PM EST
    Jim, Based on my reading of the bill, it specifically limited review to federal law: The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida shall have jurisdiction to hear, determine, and render judgment on a suit or claim by or on behalf of Theresa Marie Schiavo for the alleged violation of any right of Theresa Marie Schiavo under the Constitution or laws of the United States relating to the withholding or withdrawal of food, fluids, or medical treatment necessary to sustain her life. The bill (despite the de novo reference later, which references back to this provision) did not give the federal court authority to revisit state court matters. This seemed clear to me in the basic case that the parents' attorneys brought to the federal court -- they focused on issues where they really didn't have a case, because the statute did not allow them to bring in the state court issues. It may be that Congress could have directed the federal court to review everything (I don't know). But it didn't. The wording limited it to Constitutional and United States law