REPUBLICANS are complaining that they got mugged at the conference on the crime bill over the weekend and that they hardly recognize the compromise product. The bill "left the House as Arnold Schwarzenegger and came back as Woody Allen," said House conferee Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). That's the line coming from the White House too. The president, claiming that this version of the bill "would weaken our criminal justice system," vows to veto it. We find it hard to believe that legislation that would create more than 50 new capital offenses will be greeted as a boon by thugs and miscreants, but we won't shed any tears if the bill is buried.
The White House objects specifically to the fact that conferees accepted the House version of a habeas corpus change rather than the Senate one. The former does put a one-year time limit on defendants' moving for this review, and also guarantees each death penalty prisoner the right to competent counsel and to raise constitutional objections that were validated by the Supreme Court after his conviction. The Senate version, preferred by the administration, virtually eliminates habeas corpus review in federal courts. The startling fact to remember when evaluating these competing proposals is that federal judges grant some form of relief in 40 percent of death penalty cases coming before them on habeas corpus review. How can the White House possibly believe that it is necessary to short-circuit and short-change these proceedings when they uncover so much injustice?
It is true that if the Republicans had been successful at conference, the bill would have been far worse than it is now. Warrantless searches, for example, would have been allowed, so long as police were acting "in good faith." A capital punishment law would have been forced on the District of Columbia. And every murder committed with a gun would have become a federal crime punishable by death. There are some who say this bill is the least offensive Congress is likely to approve in this politically charged field. But the price is too high. Accepting this compromise is no victory for those who believe that tough talk and more death penalties are not the way to fight crime. For reasons very different from those the president will cite, we welcome a veto.