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In stay denial, Stevens again blasts death row appeal process

In an order that hits close to home for many Washington-area residents, the Supreme Court yesterday cleared the way for John Allen Muhammad, also known as the D.C. Sniper, to be executed tonight in Virginia.

Yesterday the Court denied Muhammad’s application to stay his execution, exhausting his judicial remedies. Unless Gov. Timothy M. Kaine intervenes, Muhammad will die by lethal injection tonight, a sentence for the shooting death of Dean H. Meyers in Virginia – one of 10 shooting deaths in and around the Washington area that terrorized the region for three weeks in October 2002.

But in a statement accompanying the Court’s order, Justice John Paul Stevens expressed his frustration with the Court’s decision not to stay the execution pending a full examination of Muhammad’s appeal.

Stevens noted that, after reviewing the case, he did not disagree with the decision to deny certiorari in the case. But, Stevens said, had the Court granted the temporary stay, it would have had the opportunity to fully vet the case at its conference in two weeks. But because state officials set the execution for tonight, the Court wouldn’t get that chance.

“This case highlights once again the perversity of executing inmates before their appeals process has been fully concluded,” Stevens wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. “Under our normal practice, Muhammad’s timely petition for certiorari would have been reviewed at our Conference on November 24, 2009. Virginia has scheduled his execution for November 10, however, so we must resolve the petition on an expedited basis unless we grant a temporary stay. By denying Muhammad’s stay application, we have allowed Virginia to truncate our deliberative process on a matter – involving a death row inmate – that demands the most careful attention.”

Stevens renewed his call for automatic stays of death row inmates making their first appeal to the high court. “Such a practice would give meaningful effect to the distinction Congress has drawn between first and successive habeas petitions,” Stevens wrote. “It would also serve the interests of avoiding irreversible error, facilitating the efficient management of our docket, and preserving basic fairness by ensuring death row inmates receive the same procedural safeguards that ordinary inmates receive.”

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