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Editorial

Halfway There

Friday, February 11, 2005; Page A24

YOU MIGHT HAVE missed it amid the Virginia General Assembly's battles over underwear, gay marriage and Episcopal church property, but the House of Delegates passed a genuinely important -- if somewhat obscure -- piece of legislation this week. The bill, pushed by Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), responds to a problem we flagged in a series of editorials last year: an epidemic of criminal appeals being dismissed not because they lack merit but because lawyers miss key filing deadlines. Mr. Albo's bill, which passed on a 73 to 25 vote, would not entirely fix the problem. But it would make it dramatically easier for the victims of these defaulted appeals to get them reinstated without gravely damaging their other legal interests.

The bill's prospects in the state Senate remain somewhat cloudy. While Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has backed the bill, key senators have not yet weighed in, and the attorney general's office has dismissed it as unnecessary. This is wrong. Our investigation revealed hundreds of cases in which individuals were denied the ability to appeal convictions because of filing mistakes over which they had no control; the Virginia State Bar, in an investigation that followed, found hundreds more. Yet under current law, restoring such blown appeals involves a lengthy and cumbersome procedure in which the lawyer who fouled up the case cannot ethically help the client he or she failed. Yet if the client, acting unaided by counsel, is not far more careful than any litigant acting on his own can reasonably be expected to be, getting the appeal back can mean losing all future opportunities to challenge the conviction. We have spoken to numerous inmates -- some serving very long sentences -- who got their appeals restored but had no idea of the consequences of doing so and now lack any viable legal venue in which to raise complaints about their trials.

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Virginia's current law is a system begging for injustice. Mr. Albo deserves credit for shepherding this far a modest, technical reform that would make a big difference. The Senate must get it the other half of the way.


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