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California Supreme Court studies measure to expedite death penalty cases


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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The California Supreme Court June 6 examined whether a ballot measure passed in November to speed up executions is constitutional.

After voters narrowly approved Proposition 66, as the measure is called, it was challenged by opponents. It now comes down to whether the state's citizens or the court will decide how capital punishment cases are handled.

California's bishops had urged voters to say no on Proposition 66, stressing that "any rush to streamline that process will inevitably result in the execution of more innocent people."

During the June 6 oral arguments, the justices expressed doubts about the measure and pointed out that the effort to rush executions and set a five-year limit on appeals would shift court resources toward capital punishment and away from all other cases.

Currently, the state has nearly 750 inmates on death row. Only 13 executions have taken place since 1978.

An editorial about the ballot measure before the Supreme Court in the June 9 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle called it "California's turn to consider a wrongheaded scheme to speed up the death penalty."

"Fortunately, the state's Supreme Court justices, who are considering a challenge to the initiative, have expressed appropriate doubts," it added.

The editorial also noted that barriers to carrying out the death penalty are rooted in serious questions about its "irreversibility, arbitrariness and immorality. Executing prisoners more quickly is exactly the wrong answer to those questions."

A lawsuit challenging the ballot measure's constitutionality was filed by former Attorney General John Van de Kamp and Ron Briggs, whose father wrote the ballot measure that expanded California's death penalty in 1978. The appeal said the new measure would disrupt the courts, cost more money and limit the ability to conduct proper appeals. It also said the sped-up executions would set "an inordinately short timeline for the courts to review those complex cases" and result in attorneys cutting corners in their investigations.

Kent Scheidegger, arguing in favor of the measure, told The Mercury News daily newspaper, that he was optimistic about the case and said that chances for the proposition to be struck down are "practically nil."

The court has until September to issue its ruling on the case.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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