Attacks on Habeas Corpus: The System's Rush to Execute

Revolutionary Worker #885, December 8, 1996

In April, the "Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. Under the excuse of "fighting terrorism," the law gives the government, courts and police authorities widely expanded powers of repression.

One of the centerpieces of the new law is a measure calling for historic restrictions on habeas corpus--the right of prisoners to appeal their convictions and sentences in the federal courts. These restrictions will allow the government to execute more people and keep more prisoners under unjust incarceration. In the twisted language of the oppressors, these restrictions are known as habeas corpus "reforms"!

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a part of the new habeas corpus restrictions with a unanimous decision in the Felker case. Other provisions are expected to be considered by the Supreme Court--and upheld.

Under the new law, state prisoners will be limited to only one federal court appeal. And the appeal would have to be filed within one year--in some cases within six months--after the state conviction becomes final. Often, it is years before new evidence comes to light or new witnesses appear, giving prisoners legal ammunition to challenge their convictions.

The law also severely limits the authority of the federal court to review state court convictions. It would not be enough for a prisoner to show that he or she was convicted in a state court on false evidence, coerced confession or other outrages. The prisoner would have to provide "clear and convincing" evidence of innocence and show that the state judge acted in an "unreasonable" way. These are very strict standards that make it virtually impossible for state prisoners to have their cases overturned in federal court.

What effect will the gutting of habeas corpus have on prisoners, especially those on death row? Since 1970, almost half of the state court death sentences reviewed by the federal courts have been reversed. If the "counter-terrorism" law had been in effect, most of those people would not be alive today.

The restrictions on habeas corpus bring added urgency to the fight to stop the execution of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. At a July press conference in Philadelphia, Leonard Weinglass--Mumia's lead attorney--said: "[The new law] is going to affect Mumia's case very dramatically because, up until now, we all thought that it would be a federal court looking at what the state courts of Pennsylvania had done that would order a new trial for Mumia. Now that issue is very, very clouded and the prospects are very ominous. So it's very important that the outside support be maintained."

During the October Month of Resistance, the RW talked to Steve Hawkins, a Black criminal defense attorney with the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty, about the new habeas corpus restrictions. Here are excerpts from that conversation.


On the history of habeas corpus in the U.S.:

It's important for people to really see the connection with habeas corpus and Reconstruction. When slavery ended in this country, there was a concern that southern states would use the power of criminal law to put people back on the same plantations they had just gotten off of. Because the 13th Amendment only outlaws slavery--involuntary servitude--as long as you're a free citizen, you can be forced to work for free in prison.

It's quite similar to the chain gangs we see now happening in the south. As the capitalist economy forces a lot of people out of work, the prison industrial complex is being used to have workers doing road work, painting, etc. I was just in a county recently where a number of buildings have been newly designated as historic buildings. Because of that, they can get the inmate crews to paint them, refurbish them and everything else. In Georgia they're using inmate labor to fight fires. People who are considered lifers too dangerous to be out on the streets are now being recruited to go save people's lives and be the point people in dangerous fires.

Habeas corpus came about because the Reconstruction Congress knew that there had to be some way that when the southern states tried to force newly freed Blacks back to the plantation through imposing long prison sentences (and in those days, the warden could farm out inmates to work on people's property), the people could use the federal courts as a sanctuary, to be able to go in and press their rights. The Habeas Corpus Act of 1867 was passed right at the same time as the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was to make sure people had equal rights in the civil context. And the Habeas Corpus Act was to make sure that people's rights as citizens of the United States were protected in the criminal context.

About the effect of the new habeas corpus law on the Mumia case:

The federal court, even if they disagreed with Judge Sabo, would now have to defer to his opinion. [They would have to defer] to the word of Judge Sabo, a former member of the Fraternal Order of Police, a former sheriff in Philadelphia county, with respect to whether Mumia received effective representation and counsel, whether Mumia's sentence was cruel and unusual punishment, whether his First Amendment freedoms--his political affiliation with the Black Panther Party--was used wrongfully to argue to the jury that he should be sentenced to death because of his political beliefs. And that has not been the standard in this country since habeas corpus was first passed back in 1867.

How the gutting of habeas corpus will affect the masses of people:

What it means is that if someone ends up in jail through a trial in which there were mistakes made--whether it was evidence that never should have been entered, whether the prosecutor made a comment to the jury which prejudiced the whole trial, whether there were questionable dealings in terms of information that should have been handed over to the defense attorney that wasn't--the prosecutor now gets a free-for-all. Because at the local-state level, where the judges work much more closely with the prosecutors, the judge is going to allow the prosecutor to get away with a lot more. And you as a citizen aren't going to have any power, really, to correct that.

This is part of the growth of fascism in this country. Ultimately with the destruction of habeas corpus, the chances of innocent people being executed (and I believe some have already been executed in the last 20 years) is now much more real, and just waiting to happen. When they talk about speeding up the process, and at the same time cutting the level of review, they're bound to make critical mistakes.

As I'm sure you know, four African American men out of Chicago, the Ford Heights 4, spent a number of years on death row. Under this new statute, someone like Dennis Williams, who spent 18 years on death row, would've been executed. I've talked on some of these right-wing talk shows on radio, and when I raise this point they take the attitude that they see the death penalty as something like skiing. People ski and there are accidents on the slopes, but we don't pull the slopes down. Whenever I hear that, I think of Mussolini's quote, "What is one life in the affairs of the state?"

Even if someone is innocent--this has been my experience, and we see it with Mumia--this is a system that does not admit its mistakes and does everything it can possibly do to cover them up. And the only difference now will be, you won't have the ability to expose the police or expose what happened at a trial. It'll be concealed.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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