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  •   High Court Cases Explore Death Penalty Appeals

    Supreme Court

    By Joan Biskupic
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 23, 1999; Page A3

    The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide when state prisoners can be barred from challenging their convictions in federal court under a 1996 law designed to curtail the years-long appeals process.

    The case brings to the forefront the tension between lawmakers who want to end prisoners' last-ditch attempts to elude execution and defendants' rights advocates who insist a thorough federal review is crucial to ensuring that those who are truly innocent are not put to death.

    In a separate case yesterday, the justices also heard arguments in an appeal by the first man sentenced under the 1994 law that effectively brought back federal capital punishment after more than 25 years.

    Together, these cases are part of a steady stream of prisoner appeals made to a court that believes the death penalty is constitutional but wants to make sure it is carried out fairly. In the background are the recurring headlines about convicts who manage to avoid execution with seemingly frivolous appeals, as well those about prisoners who only at the 11th hour were shown to be innocent.

    Some 21 prisoners are on the federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. On state death rows, a total of 3,549 men and women are awaiting execution. Appeals from state prisoners can mean several stops in state and federal courts and can drag on for more than a decade. That lengthy process prompted Congress in 1996 to pass a law severely restricting second or successive habeas corpus petitions to federal judges.

    The breadth of that law will be tested in an appeal by Antonio Tonton Slack, who in 1989 was convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of a 12-year-old girl, Alanna Holmes. Unlike many other state prisoners whose constitutional challenges make it to the high court, Slack is not sentenced to die, but a ruling in his case will affect not only those with life sentences but also those condemned to death.

    Slack had admitted to killing the girl but said it was an accident and contended several constitutional errors occurred in his state hearings. Slack's initial petition to a federal court was dismissed because he had failed to exhaust his state appeals first. But when he returned to federal court, he was barred because of flaws in his first federal petition.

    Slack's lawyer told the justices: "What should not be lost amidst the procedural history of this case is this simple reality: Mr. Slack has never received an adjudication by the federal courts of any of his claims, and yet the lower courts have ruled that his initial, uncounseled foray into federal court . . . has essentially foreclosed him from raising all available claims during this initial round of federal habeas proceedings."

    The case of Slack v. McDaniel, to be heard in the fall, will determine when a petition can be considered successive and an abuse of the federal courts. Last term the justices ruled by a 7 to 2 vote that some habeas corpus petitions dismissed on technical grounds could not be counted toward a prisoner's limited review before a federal court.

    The case testing the parameters of the new federal death penalty law comes from an appeal by Louis Jones Jr., who was convicted of abducting and murdering Tracie Joy McBride, a 19-year-old Army private stationed at a base in San Angelo, Tex.

    The case specifically asks whether jurors should be told that if they fail to agree on whether the defendant deserves death or life imprisonment, the judge will sentence him to life in prison without parole.

    In Jones's case, the judge told the jury not to be concerned about what sentence Jones might get if it couldn't unanimously agree on life or death. The panel then returned a verdict recommending death.

    In his appeal, Jones says the jury should have known that if it decided against the death penalty there was no chance he would ever be free.

    He relies in part on a 1994 high court ruling in a South Carolina case that said that when a defendant's future dangerousness is at issue, the jury must be told if he would not be eligible for parole if the jury decides against capital punishment.

    A ruling in the case of Jones v. United States will offer the first sign of how exacting the Supreme Court will be in its scrutiny of the new death penalty law.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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