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Three 9th Circuit judges considering the constitutionality of a controversial death penalty law and California parole policy may soon be movie stars. At least that’s the hope of Anne Rogers O’Hearn. She filmed Judges Stephen Reinhardt and Senior Judges Ferdinand Fernandez and John Noonan last Wednesday as they heard arguments in Irons v. Carey, 05-15275. Unlike others who packed into the courtroom — several people had to sit on the floor, it was so crowded — O’Hearn’s interest in the case has nothing to do with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. Rather, O’Hearn and her company, Illuminata Films, have been following Carl Merton Irons II and other prisoners for a documentary film called “Lifers.” “I met him because I volunteered at San Quentin,” O’Hearn said. “I was just moved by his peace and calm and wisdom. The idea was to get his story.” Unlike at district courts, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows cameras, so the film crew wasn’t controversial for the judges. Reinhardt said he didn’t even notice it during arguments. “I think the public is entitled to know what goes on in a courtroom,” he said. Irons was convicted of second-degree murder in state court 20 years ago for shooting and stabbing to death another man who rented a room where Irons lived. He was sentenced to 17 years to life in prison. O’Hearn hopes her film, which follows several state prisoners, gets viewers talking about the role of forgiveness and redemption in society. Of course, lawyers have been buzzing about indeterminate sentences for several years. When Gray Davis was governor, appellate lawyers accused him of having a no-parole policy — an argument a number of judges bought before the California Supreme Court sided with Davis. Irons ended up at the 9th Circuit after unsuccessfully applying for parole in 2001. After the Board of Prison Terms denied him, Irons filed a habeas corpus petition in the Eastern District of California. U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Hollows granted the petition, saying there wasn’t enough evidence for the board’s decision. The state attorney general’s office appealed. Irons is still in custody. The case sent a ripple through the death penalty bar last week, when Reinhardt and Noonan surprised the attorneys in the case with an order requesting they be ready to discuss the AEDPA. Because both judges are well known for opposing capital punishment, lawyers saw the move as setting the groundwork for finding the AEDPA unconstitutional. But on Wednesday, the judges actually spent very little time discussing the federal statute, which Congress passed in 1996 to limit federal courts’ ability to intervene in state criminal cases. Instead, both Reinhardt, who dominated the questioning, and Noonan seemed more interested in the factors considered by the prison board in evaluating whether to release someone. Fernandez, who did not join the AEDPA order, seemed uninterested in the camera. He focused on papers in front of him, looking up only a couple of times. He did not speak to any of the attorneys. O’Hearn said she had no problem getting permission to film at the circuit, which has also granted access to newspaper photographers and TV crews. She has been working on the film for three years and hopes to finish within the next year. But, as with many independent filmmakers, money is a problem. “What I really want to do is get people thinking, not tell them what to think, but get them thinking,” she said. “Where does it come from that we have all these people in prison?”

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