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Here’s the best news Scott Peterson has heard in a while: California’s death penalty could itself be on trial. A new committee created by the Legislature has been charged with looking into the state’s administration of criminal justice and “the extent to which that process has failed in the past, resulting in wrongful executions of innocent persons.” The 14-member commission was filled late last month by outgoing Senate President John Burton, who authored the legislation that created it. An outspoken opponent of the death penalty, Burton named to the panel several prominent critics of capital punishment, such as the Habeas Corpus Resource Center’s executive director, Michael Laurence; Northern California Innocence Project Director Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi and Keker & Van Nest partner Jon Streeter. The commission is not specifically charged with considering a moratorium on capital punishment. But death penalty opponents serving on the panel make clear that they will be looking into the possibility. “Although the moratorium idea itself will not be within the scope of the commission’s work, obviously it’s related,” said Streeter, who sponsored a proposed moratorium in October that won the support of the Conference of Delegates of California Bar Associations. Indeed, the commission’s charge is reminiscent of a blue ribbon commission that identified shortcomings in the Illinois capital punishment system. Those problems were so severe that the state’s governor at the time, George Ryan, declared a moratorium on executions in 2000 and commuted the death sentences of all prisoners on Illinois’ death row in 2003. Santa Clara University law professor Ridolfi hopes that the commission can prompt a public outcry by drawing attention to the problems in the justice system. “Anything we can do to demonstrate our system is fallible helps the death penalty issue,” Ridolfi said. “Nobody wants to execute innocent people.” But if Ridolfi wants to show flaws in the judicial process so the public will want to throw out the death penalty, others on the committee want to find those problems so they can fine-tune the capital punishment process. The commission will be headed by John Moulds, a magistrate judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, who noted: “I firmly believe we spent so much time on the debate about whether or not capital punishment should exist as a policy that nobody spent much time figuring out what we should do to be smart about it if we are going to have it.” The panel also includes law enforcement voices, such as San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, as well as attorney and victim advocate Nina Salarno Ashford, from Crime Victims United. And while Illinois’ commission led to huge changes in that state’s death row, powerful voices in the California legal system have resisted comparing the states’ courts. In April 2003, the Senate Select Committee on the California Correctional System headed by State Sen. Gloria Romero, held a hearing looking specifically at the death penalty in California. In town for the hearing, Ryan called on California to take “a second look” at the administration of capital punishment. But Romero stopped short of calling for a study to look into the death penalty. Ryan’s testimony included a summary of capital punishment recommendations made by the Illinois commission, including one that the death penalty be barred when a conviction is based solely upon the testimony of a single eyewitness. “They had all sorts of problems with the Illinois capital punishment system that are not referenced in California,” said Chief Justice Ronald George, who conceded to reporters earlier this month that the appeals system for California’s death row inmates is “dysfunctional.” George was acknowledging the delays of 15 to 20 years that can occur in capital appeals and habeas review, but he said that is due largely to the care taken to find adequate legal representation. Even supporters of the death penalty are glad that California’s handling of it is getting a closer look. Kent Scheidegger, legal director and general counsel for the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the administration of the death penalty may well be a worthy focus of investigation — particularly the length of time it takes for death row inmates to exhaust the appeal process. “They’re parsing over every comma of a jury’s instruction over and over,” he said. The commission will hold its first meeting early in the new year.

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