Court gives green light to death penalty fast-tracking

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A federal appeals court Wednesday cleared the way for the Department of Justice to allow states to have their inmates' death penalty appeals expedited through federal court.
 
Legal organizations that challenged the DOJ's criteria for certifying states for the fast-track program lacked standing to bring the lawsuit, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said. The court also noted that the DOJ had not yet granted any certifications, and those certifications would be reviewed by a separate appeals court.

The decision threw out a lower court ruling that blocked the certification process.

The fast-track program would require inmates to file petitions in federal court within six months of a final ruling on their appeal in state court. They normally have a year. It would also require federal courts to act faster on the inmates' petitions.

At least one state, Arizona, has asked the DOJ to certify it for the fast-track program.

Opponents say it would force attorneys representing death penalty inmates to scramble to file appeals, possibly leading some cases to be neglected. Supporters say the program could take years off the death penalty appeals process, giving crime victims faster justice.

"This decision is important not only for the families of murder victims, but also for everyone in the United States who depends upon the rule of law and relies upon the courts to follow it," Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said in a statement. The Sacramento-based nonprofit organization advocates for swift punishment for guilty defendants and filed arguments in the case.

Marc Shapiro, an attorney for the legal organizations that sued — the San Francisco-based Habeas Corpus Resource Center and the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Arizona — said he will ask a larger 9th Circuit panel to review the ruling.

"We're living in a time where our system of capital punishment is being exposed for its critical flaws," he said. "There's a heightened need for assuring we're not sending innocent or otherwise undeserving people to the execution chamber."

To qualify for the fast-track program, a state has to require a court to appoint an attorney to represent an indigent capital inmate unless the inmate rejects the attorney or is not indigent, according to the 9th Circuit's ruling. Regulations finalized by the DOJ in 2013 set benchmarks for attorney competency.

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