Leahy to push legislation to avoid mistakes on death row; Bill to offer protections tied to DNA evidence


WASHINGTON -- As Illinois' moratorium on executions draws national attention, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy is putting the final touches on federal legislation to provide new protections for all death row inmates, including those convicted under state statutes.

The measure, which the Vermont Democrat is expected to unveil today, would permit federal and state inmates awaiting execution to introduce DNA evidence to try to establish their innocence. It would also set nationwide minimum competency standards for court-appointed defense attorneys in all capital cases, according to Senate aides and others familiar with the legislation.

A spokesman for Leahy, the top-ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, refused to discuss the bill's contents, noting that it is being drafted and "is subject to change until it's been introduced." But Senate aides and others familiar with the legislation outlined it.

The proposed legislation would apparently mark a significant federal intervention into state judicial procedures and runs counter to a legislative trend in recent years curtailing the rights of death row inmates to reopen their cases.

Democratic backers are hoping the experience of Illinois will help shift the political debate, which in recent years has often reflected a crime-weary public's frustration over delays in executions. Gov. George Ryan, a Republican supporter of the death penalty, imposed the state moratorium after disclosures of an apparent pattern of wrongful death-penalty convictions in Illinois since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.

Citing Ryan's action, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged President Clinton to propose a suspension of all federal executions. "We believe that the death penalty, along with legalized abortion and assisted suicide, contribute to a culture of death by saying that some lives are expendable," Fiorenza wrote in a letter to Clinton.

Key among the provisions would be a requirement that states establish some legal forum in which death row inmates could bring forward exculpatory evidence from DNA testing, even after the expiration of time limits for new evidence and for appeals.

For federal criminal cases, the legislation also would, according to Capitol Hill sources, create an exception for DNA evidence to a general two-year time limit on the introduction of new evidence.

Illinois and New York are the only states that currently grant an exception to limits on appeals in the event of DNA evidence, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which has been critical of the administration on the death penalty.

Most states set time limits on the introduction of new evidence, although courts and prosecutors sometimes waive those limits "in the interests of justice." Dieter said prosecutors and judges sometimes resist reopening cases to consider new DNA evidence.

Leahy's proposal would encourage states to preserve DNA evidence and provide state-funded testing of DNA evidence for indigent inmates requesting it, said several attorneys familiar with the legislation.

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