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Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Kyl Bill to Limit 'Endless' Death Penalty Delays

Location: Washington, DC

Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing on Kyl Bill to Limit 'Endless' Death Penalty Delays

AZ Attorney General's Office Testifies in Support, as 'Habeas' Appeals Rise Dramatically

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Senate Judiciary Committee today held a hearing on a bill sponsored by U.S. Senator Jon Kyl designed to reduce the backlog of federal court appeals in major criminal cases. Entitled "Habeas Corpus Proceedings and Issues of Actual Innocence," the hearing focused on S. 1088, Kyl's Streamlined Procedures Act, which would update the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

"The AEDPA was designed to limit endless death penalty appeals in state convictions, but ten years later it has become clear that the problem has not been fixed," Kyl said. "The backlog of habeas claims has increased, not decreased, and so has the burden on prosecutors. In the Philadelphia District Attorney's office alone, the number of lawyers employed exclusively on habeas work has increased by 400 percent. Meanwhile, federal-court appeals still drag on endlessly."

The AEDPA imposed a limit for all appeals relating to the right to writ of habeas corpus in capital cases, and reduced the length of the appeal process by limiting the role of federal courts. (Habeas corpus is the mechanism by which convicted criminals can attempt to demonstrate that their convictions or sentences violate the Constitution.) When it was enacted, then-President Clinton remarked that "it should not take eight or nine years and three trips to the Supreme Court to finalize whether a person in fact was properly convicted or not."

Unfortunately, Kyl noted, in many cases it still takes that long or longer. Last month, Carol Fornoff testified in the House about the impact on her family of delays in reviewing the case of the man who raped and murdered her 13-year-old daughter in Tempe, Arizona in 1984. Christy Ann Fornoff was abducted while collecting newspaper subscriptions at an apartment complex near her home. Voluminous physical evidence linked her murder to a man in the apartment complex, and he was convicted and sentenced in 1985. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the case in a lengthy opinion in 1988. The killer then filed a federal habeas petition in 1992, and the federal district court spent 7 years reviewing the case. After more appeals and remands, the case still remains in federal habeas review today, two decades after the killer's conviction.

"Mrs. Fornoff's testimony makes a powerful case for why these types of delays are intolerable," Kyl said. "Among other things, she noted that by this fall the case will have been in the federal appellate courts for longer than Christy was alive. She has right to know within a reasonable timeframe if the murderer was properly convicted, if his conviction might be thrown out, if she might have to endure another trial, or worse, if there is a possibility that he might one day be released."

According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, in fiscal year 1994, there were 13,359 federal habeas petition pending before the U.S. District Courts. By fiscal year 2003 - the last year for which data are available - that number had risen by nearly 10,000 petitions, to 23,218. Similarly, in fiscal year 1994, 3,799 habeas petitions were pending before the U.S. Courts of Appeals. By 2003, that number had nearly doubled, to 7,025.

Kyl has long championed the cause of victims' rights, co-sponsoring the Justice for All Act with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), which President Bush signed into law last fall. "It has often been said that justice delayed is justice denied," Kyl said. "That's every bit as true for crime victims as it is for criminal defendants."

"At the same time," he added, "Everyone agrees that it is important to allow prisoners who are actually innocent the opportunity to prove it at every point in the process. For this reason, at every point, this bill allows actual innocence claims (as opposed to procedural objections) to move forward unimpeded. We all want to make sure that an innocent person is not executed. But we also want finality for victims, and that means reducing the backlog of habeas petitions."

Kent Cattani, chief counsel for the capitol litigation section of the Arizona Attorney General's office, testified in strong support of Kyl's bill, as did Assistant Attorney General John Pressley Todd of the same office. A House version of the bill has been introduced by Rep. Dan Lundgren (R-CA).

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