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TX Seeks to Limit Federal Appeals of People on Death Row

People on death row in Texas prisons can often spend a decade or more waiting for appeals to work their way through the federal court system. (Twenty20)

by Mark Richardson

AUSTIN, Texas – Death-penalty opponents say a request by Texas officials to limit the amount of time people on death row have to appeal their sentences could result in some who are innocent being executed.

Texas has asked the Justice Department to allow the state to use a federal law that limits the legal process and appeals options for people on death row. Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says setting time limits on appeals would not only affect people entering the system, but could also unfairly cut short appeals for those who have been waiting a decade or longer.

“The death penalty already carries an unconscionable risk of executing the innocent, so any measure that would limit access to the court is taking a huge step backwards, in terms of providing fair justice,” says Houle.

The federal law allowing fast-tracking of the appeals process has been on the books since 1996 but so far, no states have qualified. Late last year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions invited Texas and Arizona – states which had previously shown an interest in opting in – to apply again for the program.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said it will spare crime victims from “needless delays” in executions and protect state courts from federal interference.

Since the death penalty was revived in 1976, Texas has by far executed the largest number of people. Houle says that makes it even more critical that those facing death sentences have unimpeded access to the federal appeals process.

“Currently we have right around 230 individuals on death row in Texas and many of them need this critical access to the federal court to correct the wrongs that may have occurred at the state level,” says Houle.

She adds the Texas request has sparked a federal lawsuit and criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, the government of Mexico, and dozens of defense attorneys. The Justice Department says there is no timetable for a decision on the states’ requests.

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