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State Murder Machine Picks Up

State Murder Machine Picks Up Speed

Fifty-six people were executed by sixteen states in 1995. That was the highest national figure since 1957. As usual, Texas led the nation with 19 executions in 1995. Since the supreme court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, there have been 313 executions in the U.S., 104 of them in Texas.

The 1995 total of 56 executions is a distinct increase from recent years. There were 23 in 1990, 14 in 1991, 31 in 1992, 38 in 1993, and 31 in 1994. The total for the first half of this decade, 193, already surpasses the 117 carried out in all of the 1980's. There were only three in the 70's, and 191 in the 60's.

Congress has moved to eliminate the $20 million in federal funds for all 21 death penalty legal-resource centers across the U.S. Opponents of the post-conviction centers say they needlessly delay justice.

"The centers have functioned like brakes," says Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "Congress is taking the brakes off."

The death penalty centers opened in 1988 in response to a rising death row population and an inadequate number of lawyers to handle the cases. Proponents of the federally funded centers proclaimed that they would speed-up the execution process. Now many of those same people support closing the centers - for the same reason. Opponents of the closures, however, say that it will only slow down the process.

"The centers provide an expertise that we can't provide," says Esther Lardent of the American Bar Association's Post-Conviction Death Penalty Project, which recruits law firms to handle death penalty appeals. "Nobody practices this area of law except for people in these centers, and a few other people scattered in the country."

Steve Hall, administrator of the Texas Resource Center's Austin office says that capital punishment laws are ever-shifting, so recruiting experienced counsel is "tough work. People do two or three [death penalty appeals] and feel like they've done their civic duty."

About half of the 3,029 prisoners on death row are being represented or assisted by experienced capital punishment attorneys from the 21 centers slated to be closed. That is probably the crux of the issue. Once those experienced attorneys are scattered to the winds, death row prisoners will have a more difficult time mounting effective challenges to the legal issues in their cases.

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