Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Clemency in the High Court

Adam Liptak of the New York Times is reporting on criminal cases in the United States Supreme Court. Among other things, he observes:

The Supreme Court also agreed on Monday to hear an appeal from another Tennessee death row inmate, to resolve an issue that has divided federal appeals courts: Must the federal government provide lawyers to poor people on death row seeking clemency?

The case, Harbison v. Bell, No. 07-8521, turns on the proper interpretation of a federal law that provides lawyers to indigent death row inmates convicted in state court who challenge their death sentences in federal court. The law, part of the Terrorist Death Penalty Enhancement Act of 2005, says that such lawyers are to represent their clients in “all available post-conviction process,” including “proceedings for executive or other clemency.”

The solicitor general’s office, representing the federal government, had urged the Supreme Court to hear the case to resolve the conflict among the appeals courts but said the law applied only to federal proceedings.

But the Associated Press reports that the Justice Department has said, elsewhere, "There is no constitutional right either to clemency itself or to counsel to pursue it." The AP also notes:

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who has granted clemency once since 2003, said the state has no formal clemency proceedings and he would defer to the high court's decision. But if the Supreme Court finds that legal representation is required, he said, "then the federal government ought to pay for it."

Harbison was convicted of the beating death of an elderly woman back in 1983. See description of the gruesome murder here. See Adam Liptak's discussion of the Court and this case and others here. See Associated Press coverage here.

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