IN Texas, the execution of convicted murderers has become so common that it almost seems routine. Of the nine criminals put to death in the United States this year, seven were executed in the Lone Star State - including one man whose intelligence bordered on retardation.
Since 1982, Texas has executed twice as many people as any other state. Its death row, with nearly 400 occupants, remains the most populous in the nation. Now Texas officials, eager to look tough for an electorate worried about crime, want to speed up the death-sentence appeal process.
On the national level, House Republicans are pushing for a similar legal change - moves that could lead to a rise in executions and thus sharpen what debate there is over society's ultimate sanction.
``It's cost, it's time, and more importantly, it's an insult to the victim's family'' when appeals delay an execution by a decade or more, says Ward Tisdale of the Texas attorney general's office.
Both many Texas lawmakers and the US House of Representatives want to place new restrictions on habeas corpus appeals, which examine whether a convict was accorded due process of law. A proposed Texas law would limit capital convicts to one state habeas corpus appeal. It would be filed concurrently with, rather than subsequent to, the direct appeal to a higher court, usually the first step following conviction.
``Too many murderers on death row thumb their nose at the legal system,'' Gov. George W. Bush (R) said during his campaign. ``While anyone sentenced to death should have a right to an appeal, the current system allows far too many.''
On the other hand, the appeals process has allowed six death row inmates in Texas since 1987 to dodge execution, establish innocence, and finally win release.
On the federal level, a 1991 decision by the US Supreme Court has already placed some restrictions on habeas corpus appeals.
The decision did away with multiple federal appeals, each raising a new issue. State prisoners now must raise all issues in one federal appeal unless they can show that the state justice system prevented them.
This rule has been incorporated into the Effective Death Penalty Act of 1995, passed by the US House of Representatives in Washington last week.
The House bill, which also stipulates that the appeal must be filed within a year after appeals at the state level are exhausted, is part of the Contract With America agenda pushed by House Republicans. A companion bill in the Senate has not yet come to a vote.
``It's not a matter of trying to hurry up the execution,'' says a staff lawyer for the US House subcommittee on crime. ``We're not trying to rush anybody into the [electric] chair.''
But that may be the impact, he acknowledges, of the Effective Death Penalty Act. Even without new laws, the capital punishment process has accelerated nationwide. Bureau of Justice statistics show that capital convicts had spent an average of 80 months on death row as of 1988. The average peaked at 116 in 1991, but has declined since then, standing at 113 months in 1993.
Correspondingly, executions are generally on the increase: 11 in 1988, followed by 16, 23, 14, 31, 38, and 31 in 1994. This year has already seen nine executions, a record-setting pace.
Enacting new habeas-corpus restrictions, opponents of capital punishment argue, will exacerbate the faults of the United States criminal justice system.
The faults, they say, are many: minorities targeted for prosecution; indigent defendants receiving inadequate court-appointed legal counsel; innocents being convicted; executing someone costing taxpayers (because of the complicated legal process) far more than jailing him or her for life; no proof that the death penalty deters crime.
``The criminal justice system we have in this country, while it may be the best in the world, is still too subject to mistakes,'' says Doug Robinson, a Washington lawyer who gave more than five years to a pro-bono effort that proved a Texas death-row inmate's innocence.
``You would think in a capital crime that the defendant would get the best of lawyers,'' says Mr. Robinson. ``That's just not the case. The opposite may be true.''
If enacted, restrictions on habeas corpus ``would probably shorten the process a small amount,'' says Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, which opposes capital punishment.
But Mr. Dieter doubts such changes would save taxpayers any money. And if it ``guts the right of habeas corpus,'' the final law will be open to a constitutional challenge, he says.
Robinson says the House bill probably wouldn't have prevented him from saving his Texas client. ``We were relatively prompt'' in filing appeals, he says, though at one point his client was two days away from execution.
But the draft Senate bill would stop a federal court from hearing a habeas corpus appeal if it was determined that the issues had received a ``full and fair'' hearing at the state level, even if the resulting decision was wrong.
Mr. Tisdale of the Texas attorney general's office criticizes ``frivolous'' appeals such as ``the fact that they don't have court-appointed counsel.''
On the contrary, says Steve Hall, spokesman for the Texas Resource Center, capital convicts are justified in arguing such issues as ``ineffective assistance of counsel'' or ``prosecutorial misconduct.''