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Capital punishment: Reform the process or abolish the practice

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WHEN the United States Supreme Court opens for business again in less than three weeks, it will be deluged by a spate of requests from condemned murderers for stays of execution. It is not the mandate of the high court to determine guilt or innocence. Lower judicial tribunals have already done this. It is, however, the justices' responsibility to review convictions that have resulted in the death penalty to determine if trials were conducted in a manner whereby constitutional rights were properly protected.

Many capital cases - even when the issue of guilt has long been resolved - linger in the system for many years. That has meant a steady expansion of death-row populations. There now are an estimated 2,000 men and women awaiting execution in the 37 states that permit capital punishment.

The extensive review of capital cases at both the federal and state court levels is vital. There are those who would streamline the process, but this presents a dilemma.

Defense attorneys stress that any limitation of appeals could result in the execution of innocent people. Prosecutors, on the other hand, say already-convicted felons often misuse the system and delay justice with unmerited appeals.

Is there a solution?

One worth considering involves contrasting alternatives: Either drastically overhaul procedures that permit long delays or just abandon the death penalty.

It comes not from a death-penalty abolitionist but one who closely watched the process work for over 15 years.

Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Lewis Powell Jr. - who as a jurist upheld capital punishment as constitutional - now says the practice of lengthy state and federal review invites abuse. And he calls for Congress and state lawmakers to either streamline it or ``take a serious look at whether retention of a punishment that is not being enforced is in the public interest.''

Justice Powell says the present system that allows numerous appeals of a death sentence through the state courts to the US Supreme Court and often again through the federal courts to the Supreme Court is ``disjointed and chaotic.''

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