Monday, June 24, 2002


A few highlights....

Supreme Court Clerk Tracks Executions
By GINA HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Every week Cynthia Rapp compiles a list of people, mostly men from the South, who have a date with a state executioner. She calls it the death list.

The Supreme Court lawyer tracks the dozens of executions each year. She is on call, around-the-clock, for appeals and must deal with stressed lawyers and her own jitters on nights when justices are deliberating stay requests even as a state prepares the death chamber.

Rapp's unofficial title: death clerk.

The job is among the most taxing and unpredictable at the Supreme Court, a place with limited access, rigid time schedules and airtight confidentiality. For example, the court would not allow Rapp to be interviewed.

The death lists, sent every Monday to the nine justices, have gotten much longer since Rapp was hired a decade ago to keep up with urgent filings. The odds of last-minute reprieves remain small.

Rapp spends much of her time organizing paperwork for the pressure-charged nights of executions, when she delivers the court's decision.

Some states carry out executions even as the Supreme Court is considering last-minute appeals. Rapp told students at the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich., last fall about one such case.

Without mentioning the state, she said with a 1 a.m. execution approaching and no decision yet on a stay request, she was told the state attorney general's office would not wait unless specifically asked to do so by a justice.

At 12:58 a.m., the state's governor intervened and forced prison officials to halt the execution. At 1:10 a.m., the court issued a stay.

"If they had not held off, obviously a person would have been executed," with the world no wiser about the drama, she said. "I was kind of unnerved by it."

Rapp learned later that, because of a mix-up, she did not get early word that one of the justices had wanted the state to wait. The inmate was undergoing mental competency tests, she said.

The pace of executions has been brisk this year. Texas executed five people in May. The Supreme Court stopped one Texas execution this week, but allowed another in that state and one in Virginia. So far, 33 people have been put to death this year in the 38 states that impose the death penalty.

It varies, but some inmates file up to five or six rounds of last-minute appeals.

Many lawyers know Rapp by her by voice only. Usually, she calls with a brief message: "Stay request denied."

State attorneys say they, like defense attorneys, anxiously await calls from Rapp, hoping that they can tell victims' families that the end is near. The families "are afraid even after all the hoops have been jumped through, that there's another hoop coming," said Paul Wilson, an assistant attorney general in Missouri.

But Rapp's is the final word.

"If she calls with bad news, I don't yell at her or swear or anything," said Dale Baich, an inmate lawyer in Phoenix who has worked with Rapp. "Someone's got to be the messenger."