Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., citing an "intolerable" backlog of more than 1,000 death-row inmates, yesterday urged the courts and Congress to end the long delays and repetitive appeals that he said have stalled implementation of capital punishment sentences across the country.
If the death penalty can't be implemented more efficiently, he said, states should abolish it.
Powell's comments, prepared for delivery to a conference of judges of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, were among the strongest off-the-bench remarks by a justice on the subject of the death penalty, and came as the court is considering a major case involving appeals procedures for death-row inmates.
Seven persons have been executed since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976, while 1,156 people--some on death row for six to seven years--are awaiting execution.
"This malfunctioning of our system of justice is unfair to the hundreds of persons confined anxiously on death row," Powell said. "It also disserves the public interest in the implementation of lawful sentences" and "undermines public confidence in our system of justice and the will and ability of the courts to administer it."
Powell placed part of the blame on resourceful defense lawyers who take "every advantage of a system that irrationally permits abuse" of the process. "The primary fault lies with our permissive system," he said, "that both Congress and the courts tolerate."
Powell said Congress should consider legislation to "inhibit unlimited filings" of habeas corpus petitions, in which prisoners protest their sentences or convictions long after exhausting the regular appeals process.
He suggested that the courts put death penalty cases on "an accelerated schedule . . . . When a prisoner is on death row, his interest--as well as that of the state--demands that judges at all levels expedite their consideration" of appeals.