Faster Isn’t Always Better
Sacramento family lawyer Steven L. Wessels thinks California is still not tough enough on crime. Wessels is promoting a statewide initiative to “speed up, simplify and limit criminal appeal processes,” particularly in death penalty cases. But last Wednesday’s execution of Jesse Dewayne Jacobs in Huntsville, Tex., despite new evidence that he did not pull the trigger in the murder for which he was sentenced to die, should be Exhibit A for Californians tempted to believe that more and faster executions will slow crime.
Wessels’ proposal would create a five-member panel of appellate justices to hear appeals in capital cases. Currently, appeals must be heard by the state Supreme Court.
Wessels drafted the measure without consulting the California District Attorneys Assn. or the attorney general’s office. He still must gather signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, a major hurdle for most initiatives and one at which this dangerous proposal should die.
A key provision would require the death penalty panel to uphold trial verdicts or sentences unless it finds clear and convincing evidence of substantial prejudicial trial errors. “There is always going to be room to claim errors,” Wessels is quoted as saying. “There is always going to be human error. But we tell the appellate court to quit believing doubts.”
However, the integrity of our criminal justice system can endure only if doubt continues to cut the other way. Guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard jurors must use in deciding cases. That’s the standard a Texas jury used in convicting Jesse Jacobs of the 1986 murder of the former wife of his sister’s boyfriend. Jacobs made it easy for the jury by confessing, but he recanted after his trial, saying his sister fired the murder weapon. Indeed, later the sister was convicted, on an involuntary-manslaughter count, as being the person who pulled the trigger.
Even the prosecutor in the Jacobs case came to doubt Jacobs’ guilt. Unfortunately the U.S. Supreme Court did not; a 6-to-3 majority Monday denied a stay of execution. Writing in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said: “It would be fundamentally unfair to execute a person on the basis of a factual determination that the state has formally disavowed. I find this course of events deeply troubling.” We do too.