Faster and Fairer on Death Row

A worthy bill to speed up the appeals and petitions of death row inmates appears finally to have been sprung after being locked in the state Senate for months. Time is short, but a freshly crafted compromise version of the bill deserves passage by the Legislature before Friday’s adjournment.

The impetus for the bill came from the office of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, along with bipartisan support and strong backing from the legal community.

Originally, the measure created a new state Office of Post-Conviction Counsel to handle habeas corpus proceedings for death row inmates in both state and federal courts. A compromise worked out late Tuesday, and incorporated into Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer’s SB 1088, provides instead for a 30-person resource center under the state Supreme Court at an initial cost of $5.5 million. A major goal of the legislation is to qualify California for the expedited handling of habeas corpus proceedings under a new federal law.

There is a massive backlog of cases brought by death row inmates because the public defender’s office is overwhelmed and not enough qualified private attorneys take on such cases. Nearly a third of death row inmates are not represented by lawyers. It has taken as long as 15 years for appeals to be heard.


Conservatives like the bill because it would cut the time between sentencing and execution. Many liberals like it because it would help inmates win speedier hearings on their petitions to reopen their cases. The longer the delay, the harder it is to win cases because memories fade or witnesses die and evidence gets lost.

Now that this measure is off the Senate’s own death row, it should be expedited to the governor’s desk.