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Gonzales' new powers to speed up executions

By Alan Maass | August 24, 2007 | Page 5

ALBERTO GONZALES justified the use of torture against detainees in the U.S. government's "war on terror." Now, the attorney general is ready to claim new powers in putting prisoners to death in U.S. jails--again, in the name of the "war on terror."

Gonzales' Justice Department is preparing to implement another poisonous provision quietly slipped into last year's reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act that gives the attorney general the power to shorten the time that death row prisoners have to appeal convictions in federal courts.

Specifically, Gonzales would have the power to approve state requests for prosecutors to use "fast-track" procedures "that could shave years off the time that a death row inmate has to appeal to the federal courts after conviction in a state court," the Los Angeles Times reported.

The time limit for death row prisoners to file appeals in the federal courts would be cut in half, from one year to six months after their state appeals were resolved--regardless of new evidence of innocence coming to light. Federal judges would also face stricter deadlines for deciding on appeals.

The idea of fast-tracking death row appeals dates back to the Clinton administration and its Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. But when California and several other states applied for fast-tracking, federal courts ruled that they hadn't done enough to assure that defendants had competent attorneys.

The Patriot Act reauthorization transferred the power to approve fast-tracking from judges to the attorney general--and Gonzales is reportedly ready to certify that California and the other states are providing adequate representation to death row prisoners.

That won't come as any surprise to opponents of the death penalty. When he was counsel to the Texacutioner, then-Texas Gov. George Bush, Gonzales reviewed every execution before his boss signed off on the order, and he never found a single reason--not sleeping lawyers, not claims of innocence, not the barbarism of lethal injection--to delay sending men and women to their deaths.

The Justice Department says it will implement the new regulation in a month's time. As Kathryn Kase, co-chair of the death-penalty committee for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, told the LA Times, "This is the Bush administration throwing down the gauntlet and saying, 'We are going to speed up executions.'"

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