Los Angeles Times
  Sunday, November 20, 2005

  A rush to executions

  CHINA HAS A BRUTALLY EFFICIENT system of capital punishment. 
  Sentences can be carried out within months of conviction, sometimes 
  in mobile lethal-injection vans. The cost is low -- $87 per 
  execution. Appeals are limited and stacked in favor of the 
  prosecution. And although the government does not issue statistics, 
  estimates of the number of executions in China range upward from 
  3,000 a year.

  Most Americans would be appalled at China's system, which was 
  described by The Times' Mark Magnier in an article published in 
  September. Yet efficiency is one of the main arguments for proposed 
  federal legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), to limit 
  death penalty appeals in the United States. No one argues that the 
  proposed curbs on access to federal courts would make the U.S. 
  system as unjust as China's. And both executions and capital 
  convictions are dropping sharply in the U.S. as doubts about the 
  death penalty rise.

  So why are some members of Congress pushing so hard to make 
  executions easier? It's certainly a distraction from more pressing 
  issues, such as the war in Iraq and the budget deficit. Maybe that's 
  the point.

  The Senate version of the bill (blandly called the Streamlined 
  Procedures Act) is heading for a vote in the Judiciary Committee. 
  Its most offensive provision would curtail the use of writs of 
  habeas corpus, which allow plaintiffs to move death penalty cases 
  into federal courts on constitutional grounds after state appeals 
  are exhausted. Faced with the opposition of 49 of 50 state chief 
  justices, along with the American Bar Assn. and numerous law 
  enforcement and human rights organizations, supporters have already 
  softened the Senate proposal, and compromise could further alleviate 
  its effects.

  Softer or not, however, the measure would still result in people 
  whose guilt (or degree of guilt) is in doubt being put to death or 
  left to rot in prison. States' protections vary widely, and many are 
  far weaker than California's. In federal court, it is not uncommon 
  to see cases in which prosecutors or police are suspected of hiding 
  evidence, witness testimony is questionable, racial bias in jury 
  selection is at issue or DNA evidence may yet be obtained.

  The current issue of Law Enforcement News, for instance, details 
  problems with the collection, storage and analysis of DNA evidence. 
  Other recent studies have quantified the unreliability of eyewitness 
  testimony, especially across racial lines. And in an Alabama appeals 
  court, an inmate who has spent 19 years on death row is now 
  presenting evidence that the gun the state says he used in his crime 
  was too rusty and dilapidated to fire. What's more, FBI experts say 
  the bullets from the crime scene don't match the gun. If the Alabama 
  courts were to reject these arguments, and the bill now being 
  considered in the Senate becomes law, the inmate could be barred 
  from pursuing his case in federal court.

  Meanwhile, provisions in the renewal of the Patriot Act would make 
  it easier for prosecutors to win the death penalty in federal 
  trials. They could even get a second chance if a jury deadlocked on 
  the penalty.

  Science and history are making it increasingly clear that there is 
  no way to reconcile speedy justice and the death penalty. While 
  Congress is trying to make executions easier, many states and the 
  Supreme Court are working to make the system more fair -- and the 
  death penalty more rare.

  Even in politics, opposition to the death penalty is no longer as 
  toxic as it was a decade ago. The new governors-elect of Virginia 
  and New Jersey were elected despite their opposition to the penalty. 
  California's death row holds more than 600 inmates, yet each 
  execution raises a storm of argument, as the scheduled Dec. 13 
  execution of former Crips gang leader Stanley "Tookie" Williams 

  A civilized society does not risk a mistake that would take a life. 
  Restricting the appeals process in death penalty cases simply turns 
  back the clock to a time of greater injustice. But Americans would 
  be just as safe, and increasingly just as satisfied, with an 
  ultimate sentence of life in prison.