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by Jahna Berry
Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006 at 9:33 AM
The good side of this is it will prove the cops never make mistakes, and prosecutors never make mistakes. Hell if Andrew Thomas had his way Ray Krone would have been executed and never had a chance to make the cops look bad when his DNA didn't match the DNA of the murderer.
Fast-track executions, Thomas says
Critics call plan to clear case backlog too simplistic
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas unveiled sweeping proposals that he says will speed up death penalty cases, which take years to crawl through the legal system.
Arizona hasn't executed anyone since 2000 and there is a backlog of roughly 118 capital cases in Maricopa County. That's unacceptable, says Thomas, who released a 22-page report on Wednesday. The report was compiled using the office's statistics and by surveying its prosecutors.
"This study found that the delays were generally due to stalling tactics by defense attorneys coupled with failure by the courts to enforce rules and deadlines," Thomas said. "The length of time that it takes to carry out a death penalty sentence is an injustice to the victims and their family."
In Arizona, Thomas says it takes an average of 19 years from the date of a homicide for a killer to be executed. Thomas acknowledged his figure includes the time it takes to arrest and indict a suspect, which are issues out of the court's control.
Thomas wants to chip away at the backlog by designating a five-judge panel that would hear only death penalty cases.
The county attorney also plans to ask for legislation in January that would require the chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court to review continuances in death sentence cases.
Thomas wants to rein in defense attorneys' ability to interview witnesses or probe some issues after the death sentence.
The prosecutor's proposals got an icy reception from defense attorneys and judges who said that Thomas gave a simplistic view of complex cases. Also, several said that fast-tracking capital cases could lead to sloppy mistakes and more reversed death sentences, which also delay cases.
The reason that there is a backlog is because there aren't enough judges, prosecutors or qualified defense attorneys to handle the cases, said Judge Jim Keppel, who oversees criminal judges and who has presided over four death penalty cases.
Also, a U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Arizona case, Ring vs. Arizona, sent several death penalty cases back to Maricopa County courtrooms. The death penalty defendants now must be sentenced by juries, not judges.
"I am really disappointed," Keppel said. "I think (Thomas') view on this topic is myopic."
The proposed five-judge panel wouldn't be big enough to handle the backlog, Keppel said. It would take that group more than five years to clear the backlog, not including new death penalty cases, he said.
Up until recently, judges and prosecutors were cooperating to address the backlog, Keppel said. The court is testing a system that is designed to help judges and attorneys avoid scheduling problems that postpone trials.
Judge Roland Steinle III says he is presiding over a death penalty case that has been repeatedly continued because the prosecutors are too busy with other cases. The defense attorneys are ready to move forward, he said.
"The prosecutors indicated that they can't do trial this year," Steinle said.
Defense attorneys say they need continuances and thorough appeals because death penalty cases are more complicated.
Defense attorneys must work diligently to make sure the cases are done right the first time, so that the wrong person isn't convicted and so that the cases aren't appealed because of poor legal work, lawyers say.
Eight people from Arizona's death row have been exonerated since the 1970s, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.
"A one-size-fits-all approach is unfair and unworkable," said Dale Baich, a federal public defender who specializes in death penalty cases.
Thomas said that speeding up cases won't lead to mistakes.
The county attorney's report comes four months after a national lawyers group pointed to several flaws in the Arizona death penalty system. Among other things, the 21-month study concluded that prosecutors use inconsistent standards to seek the death penalty.
The American Bar Association also found that Arizona severely underfunds attorneys for the poor who represent the vast majority of death penalty defendants.
On Wednesday, Thomas said his press conference was not a response to the Bar Association's report, his study was already under way when the lawyer group's July report was made public.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or (602) 444-2473.
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