Chief Justice William Rehnquist called this week for reform in a death penalty system that he said invites delays in executions that extend for years. Mr. Rehnquist, in a speech prepared for the American Bar Association, acknowledged that federal courts have overturned many state convictions in death-penalty cases.

The chief justice cited the most recent execution in the country, that of serial killer Ted Bundy in Florida on Jan. 24, as an example of a system of death penalty appeals that is often ``chaotic and drawn out unnecessarily.''

Rehnquist noted that the Supreme Court turned down three separate emergency pleas in Mr. Bundy's behalf hours before he was put to death.

``All three of these actions were being prosecuted simultaneously on the day before the execution of a prisoner who had been on death row for nine years,'' he said. ``Surely it would be a bold person to say that this system could not be improved.''

Rehnquist said he is not calling for a drastic curtailing of the right of convicted killers to appeal to the federal courts for help - a process known as federal habeas corpus.

Rather, the chief justice said, he is seeking ``modest changes which will impose some structure'' on a system in which the average time elapsed between the commission of a crime and execution is eight years nationally and more than 13 years in some states. There are more than 2,000 prisoners on death row nationwide.

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