The Alabama House and Senate Judiciary Committees quickly approved the bills that are backed by state prosecutors and the attorney general aimed at speeding up the pace of executions on January 23, 2014.
Proponents say victims' families should not have to wait decades to see a death sentence carried out. Defense lawyers say the shortened appeal process could increase the chance of innocent people being executed.
Although it is easy to point to long delays in carrying out death sentences and easier still to sympathize with the loved ones of victims, the state nonetheless has a solemn obligation in these cases.
As great as the obligation for scrupulously careful, responsible conduct in depriving individuals of liberty in other criminal cases is, the moral obligation in capital punishment cases is immeasurably greater.
According to The Birmingham Times, the bill would set time limits on post-conviction challenges available to capital defendants after they exhaust regular appeals.
Rule 32 hearings are rarely approved. Present law allows a defendant convicted of a capital offense to appeal to Alabama’s State Courts and then raise constitutional issues in the federal courts.
After those direct appeals, the defendant can pursue a Rule 32 challenge in front of the trial judge on limited grounds, the most common of which are newly discovered evidence and substandard performance by the trial defense.
The bill pending in the legislature would require that the defendant file a Rule 32 challenge within 180 days of submitting a written argument in his direct appeal to the state courts. A judge could grant one, three-month extension of that deadline.
The bill would also put a time limit on judges considering Rule 32 petitions in death cases, preventing them from languishing. Under the new law, the judge would decide a Rule 32 challenge within six months of a state Supreme Court ruling on the direct appeal.
The bill would also contain a safeguard for new evidence that was not available during trial. Defendants still can bring a challenge based on new evidence – as long as they pursue it within six months of evidence being discovered.
It is unclear when the bills will get a floor vote.