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Additions slipped into Patriot Act
Knight Ridder Newspapers
WASHINGTON — Anthony Spears has been on Arizona's death row for nearly 13 years, convicted of the murder of his girlfriend near Phoenix. He isn't an international terrorist, has no links to al-Qaida and was in prison on Sept. 11, 2001.
But tucked away in the pending renewal of the USA Patriot Act, the nation's controversial law to fight terrorism, is a provision inspired by Spears. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., inserted language that could make it harder for state death-row inmates to appeal cases in federal court.
The provision is one of a handful that neither the House nor the Senate has voted on but that Republican lawmakers crafted during closed-door negotiations last year after Democrats had been excluded from the talks.
Another obscure addition, never debated in Congress, would broaden existing laws that prohibit disturbances at any event — such as those involving the president — at which the Secret Service is providing protection. Civil libertarians said it could restrict free-speech rights in the name of security.
The changes illustrate how closed-door negotiations over legislation can inspire lawmakers to slip substantive policy measures into bills with little public notice.
The House has voted for the amended Patriot Act, but the Senate hasn't.
The Secret Service provision, added by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., would make it a federal crime to trespass or create a disturbance at a "special event of national significance," such as the Super Bowl, even if the president isn't in attendance. Under current law, people who enter security zones set up by the Secret Service to protest the president or others while they're at the event can be arrested and face imprisonment for up to six months.
"It expands the jurisdiction that the Secret Service has over its ability to put in place these exclusion zones," said Timothy Edgar, the policy counsel for national security at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Specter and his aides say the language is designed simply to allow the Secret Service to set up a protective perimeter and secure it before the president or another person in its care arrives.
The death-penalty changes would make it easier for states to benefit from faster federal appellate procedures in capital-punishment cases. Under a law that passed in 1996, states that take steps to ensure that poor murder defendants are represented by competent counsel can ask for a fast-track system in which inmates have shorter deadlines to file appeals.
Arizona had tried to get Spears' federal appeal dismissed in 2000, claiming it was filed too late. State officials had argued the state was entitled to a faster appeals process because state law guaranteed effective representation for poor defendants who were facing the death penalty.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2002 that Arizona had the safeguards to qualify for faster appeals. But it said the state hadn't supplied Spears with a lawyer in a timely fashion and allowed him to proceed with his case. Spears, now married to the forewoman of the jury that convicted him, is awaiting a decision on his claim of innocence.
The Patriot Act is set to expire Friday. Democrats and a handful of Republicans have blocked renewal of the act because they want to add civil-liberties protections. Because negotiations continue, the House and Senate are expected to extend the current law by a month to six weeks as early as today.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company