Death penalty cases unnecessarily held up by federal judges - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Death penalty cases unnecessarily held up by federal judges

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Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2006 8:28 am | Updated: 4:17 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Robert Charles Comer wants to take responsibility for the murders, kidnapping, robbery and rape he committed nearly 20 years ago at Apache Lake and face the ultimate punishment — state execution by lethal injection. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals won’t let him.

Instead, a three-judge panel has refused to rule on whether Comer is mentally competent. A decision in Comer’s favor would allow him to dismiss his lawyers and end all of his appeals.

Capitol Media Services reported Monday that two judges don’t want to act until they can decide if Comer received a fair trial and sentencing hearing. Keep in mind the 9th Circuit first took up Comer’s case six years ago, and more than 12 months have passed since the court heard arguments from the lawyers about his mental state.

It appears Comer knows what he’s doing, and justice continues to be denied by an ongoing tendency of the federal appellate courts to give too much leeway to anti-death penalty forces.

“I have a right to stop the appeals,” Comer said in a handwritten plea to the court. “I have a right to atone for my sins against society.”

Arizona hasn’t executed a single death-row inmate since 2000 because federal courts continue to meddle heavily under a constitutional right for judicial review called a writ of habeas corpus. This right was intended to provide a check against indefinite jailings without charges by law enforcement, and to stop kangaroo legal proceedings.

The alarming number of times that death-row inmates have been exonerated years later show that appeals, at least at the state level, are a critical protection for defendants.

But a tiny number of federal appeals deal with actual questions of guilt or innocence. Most of the time, the issues only affect whether the sentence will be death or life in prison.

And too often in death penalty cases, the federal courts have intervened to substitute their judgment for prosecutors, juries and state judges accountable to people of Arizona.

“We’re frustrated, as is everybody else, with these death-row cases sitting for five or six years on habeas review,” state Attorney General Terry Goddard told us last week.

Goddard said the Legislature took an important step this year to remove at least one reason for federal courts to hold these cases in limbo. For the first time, defense attorneys in capital cases now must have special certification that shows they have sufficient skills and experience to handle the complexities involved. Claims that death-row inmates had bad legal representation at trial should become much more rare.

But more action needs to be taken by Congress and the courts themselves to reduce unnecessary delays that have severely limited the role of the death penalty in deterring future crime.

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