Death penalty: State must improve process

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Death penalty: State must improve process

Post  Jennie on Fri Jul 25, 2008 2:03 pm

Death penalty: State must improve process

Whether for or against the death penalty or for or against the execution of Dale Leo Bishop Wednesday, both sides of the argument should agree: Mississippi needs a quicker, better capital appeals process.

Glenn Swartzfager, director of the Office of Capital Post-Conviction Counsel which helps with appeals for indigent death-row inmates, accused his predecessor, Bob Ryan, of inadequately representing Bishop. Ryan, in turn, has described his office as understaffed and underfunded.

At one point in 2003, Ryan said he was the only person working on 21 death-row cases, which has prompted death-penalty opponents to call for a review of all these cases.

For death penalty opponents, a call for increased funding for the office would seem to support their cause. But the office was created by the Legislature in 2000 to help speed appeals, and that's what it does: improve the efficiency of the process speeding imposition of a death sentence.

Until the Legislature created the office - which, along with the Office of Capital Defense Counsel, assists public defenders statewide in death penalty cases, handling 15 to 20 a year - capital murder cases languished for years in the appeals process.

What has been hard for lawmakers to understand - then and now - is that providing adequate defense actually speeds imposition of the death penalty by reducing the number of appeals.

More important, it also has the effect of ensuring justice.

Because Mississippi went so long without state-assisted counsel, death-row cases linger on with appeal after appeal without imposition of the death penalty.

It can take upwards of 2 decades between the time of the crime and carrying out the sentence.

Bishop, 34, was convicted and sentenced to death for the kidnapping and slaying of Marcus Gentry, 22, of Fulton on Dec. 10, 1998.

The last execution at the State Penitentiary at Parchman was of Earl Wesley Berry, who was executed May 21 after spending 20 years on death row.

The longest-serving death row inmate, Richard Jordan, 61, was convicted in Jackson County 30 years ago.

Slow appeals are also expensive. Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps has said it costs $14,000 to execute an inmate, including staff overtime and preparing the death chamber at the penitentiary at Parchman. By contrast, he said, it cost more than $350,000 to incarcerate Berry for 20 years.

If more counsel were hired, not only would execution of the guilty be quicker, but those with legitimate appeals presumably would be swiftly spared.

Isn't justice sure and swift the point?

(source: Jackson Clarion-Ledger)

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