Although much is made of the 1994 crime bill, superpredators et al., in today’s election, a more damning demonstration of Slick Willy’s attempt to out-Republican the Republicans can be found in The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) passed in 1996 after the Oklahoma City bombing. The Republicans had won the 1994 midterm election with Newt Gingrich’s notorious “Contract with America” (known in liberal circles as the Contract on America) and the Oklahoma City bombing seemed tailor-made for the law-and-order Republicans to play havoc with justice issues, including the 1994 crime bill.
Hoping to head off any tampering with his crime bill, Clinton and his administration hoped to kill two birds with one stone with AEDPA. Not only did it target the sorts of terrorism involved in Oklahoma, but also the “endless” appeals in death penalty cases which meant that inmates could wait years for an execution that might never happen. The mechanism by which this delay occurred was the time-honored and constitutionally guaranteed Writ of Habeas Corpus.
Habeas corpus is one of those often misunderstood and frequently disregarded rights that our forefathers were rightfully strongly in favor of. The writ allows judicial review of incarcerations as a result of actions in state courts that may have violated constitutional guarantees and national standards of due process. It was one of the areas where our noble revolutionaries of the 18th century saw the autocratic hand of the monarchy as a cudgel against fairness and constitutional guarantees. Habeas corpus was a cornerstone of our revolutionary past.
Clinton’s aim was to restrict habeas corpus to one attempt started within one year of the end of state appeals. On its face, there’s nothing wrong with such a limitation. In fact, however, the problems with a prosecution may not be found for many years, and such a limitation cuts off advances in science or forensics that may establish a defendant’s innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. A case in point is DNA evidence. While new cases have shown some of the problems with relying on DNA evidence to prove a case, its use in disproving a case has never been stronger. The Innocence Project has won the release of many prisoners when DNA evidence has excluded the defendant from the pool of possible committers of the crime. Because of AEDPA, habeas corpus can no longer be used in the case of evidence of the defendant’s innocence, and nothing more strongly shows how warped and unconstitutional AEDPA is than the fact that habeas corpus cannot be used for its original purpose so important to our legacy.
And what, you might ask, did this violation of such an important constitutional principle have to do with the Oklahoma City bombing, the trigger for this heinous act? The Clinton White House hosted a meeting with survivors and family members of the victims of the bombing. One of their alleged complaints was the incessant appeals that would allow the terrorists the ability to tie up the courts with appeals for years. Clinton, facing re-election and determined to beat the Republicans at their own game, created this draconian truncation of the habeas corpus writ to prove he was “tough on crime,” a racial dog whistle at the time as shown by the 1994 crime bill.
The AEDPA was passed, without the support of Bernie Sanders, and is in use today under the most bizarre and surreal circumstances. The conviction of two farmers in Oregon under a provision of the AEDPA led to the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and to the horror that they were convicted under a terrorist statute. How so? The AEDPA made it a 25 year felony with a mandatory 5 year sentence to those who willfully and maliciously burned federal property, including grazing land.
While we may laugh at the irony to which the statute was used in Oregon, we cannot laugh at the the number of prisoners who must stay in prison because the unfairness of their convictions was not raised within the new time limits enacted in the AEDPA, whether they could know of the unfairness then or not. We have an evolving law with regard to rights and due process, and a whole class of criminals are barred now from challenging their convictions because Bill Clinton wanted to out-Republican the Republicans to insure his re-election in 1996.