By: Joan Parkin
The murderous Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) faces its first legal challenge in a case that could impact death row inmates nationwide. On October 4, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of Virginia death row inmate Terry Williams and review a provision of the law concerning death row appeals.
President Clinton signed the AEDPA into law in 1996 following the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building and the World Trade Center in New York City. It has become the most deadly piece of his “tough on crime” policies because it puts severe restrictions and limitations on an inmate’s ability to challenge a death sentence. The law makes it nearly impossible for the federal courts to overturn a state court’s ruling — even when a prisoner is presenting never-before-heard evidence of their innocence.
Clinton’s policies have led to a tripling of the rate of executions — at the same time as a record number of innocent people have been released from death row. According to the New York Times, “While it took 12 years after 1976 to carry out 100 executions, there have been 82 executions in the first 10 months of this year alone, a pace unequaled since the early 1950s.”
What is at issue in the challenge before the Supreme Court is whether or not federal courts have the right to evaluate the decisions of state courts.
Williams, who was sentenced to death in 1986, won a new sentencing hearing after a state court judge ruled that Williams had an incompetent lawyer. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overruled this decision, arguing that the AEDPA bars federal courts from reviewing state court judgements unless all jurists agree that the application was unreasonable.
Remarkably, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed Williams’ execution last June and granted an appeal. Disagreeing with the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared that “reasonable jurists always disagree.”
This has led to a potential confrontation between the U.S. Supreme Court and the most conservative federal court in the country. The Fourth Circuit represents the mid-Atlantic states and the Carolinas and has a majority of appointees from the Reagan and Bush administrations. It is led by white supremacist Justice Harry L. Carrico, who has a long history of voting against civil rights and school desegregation.
Clinton promised that the AEDPA would not “limit the authority of the Federal courts to bring their own judgement to bear.” Yet federal courts are now denying inmate appeals at an unprecedented rate. The Supreme Court rejects more than 90 percent of death row inmate appeals, and the Fourth Circuit accepts only 4 percent. The AEDPA insures that more people will be executed at a faster rate.
Just last week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge rushed to sign a death warrant for Mumia Abu-Jamal, before his federal writ of habeas corpus appeal could be filed. “Ridge is rushing to execute before all the evidence has been presented,” said Leonard Weinglass, Mumia’s lead attorney. “Since when does one man’s political motivations override another’s right to a fair trial, especially when a human life is in question?”
If the Supreme Court ignores political pressure and makes a ruling that weakens the AEDPA, then Williams will get a new hearing, and abolitionists can celebrate an important legal victory in the fight to preserve the rights of death row prisoners.