THE recent stay of execution granted to Robert Alton Harris, the double murderer who was scheduled to die in California's electric chair last Tuesday, has angered many people. They see the stay as further proof that the capital-punishment appeals process in the United States has become a system to frustrate justice through endless, duplicative petitions. In the 11 years that Mr. Harris has sat on death row, his sentence has been upheld repeatedly by both the state and US Supreme Courts. But on Monday the US high court blocked the execution pending further hearings on Harris's psychiatric condition.
Harris's case isn't unusual. On average, the post-conviction appeals process takes eight years.
Does the appeals process in capital cases need to be streamlined? Chief Justice Rehnquist thinks so, as does a committee he appointed chaired by retired Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell.
The Powell committee recommended last year that habeas corpus petitions - the device by which an inmate challenges the constitutionality of his conviction and sentence - be limited to one in the state courts and one in the federal courts. Constitutional claims not raised in those two ``collateral'' challenges would be lost. But the limits would apply only in states that provide competent lawyers to capital defendants during the state collateral proceedings (lawyers already are provided to a capital defendant for trial and other appeals).
Last month a panel of senior federal judges softened the Powell committee's recommendations. As revised, they are more consistent with proposals made by the American Bar Association and in a bill sponsored by Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Maryland. The ABA and Biden plans also would limit habeas appeals, but not as drastically, and they go further in addressing the great need for more-qualified lawyers at all levels of the death-penalty process, especially the trial itself.