WASHINGTON - Congressional support is growing for new protection against putting innocent inmates to death, and a majority of the Republican-led House now backs federal safeguards.
Representative William D. Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy, has said that he would not approach the Republican leadership in the House to schedule hearings on the bill until he has 218 signatures, signifying enough support to pass it on the floor if it gets that far.
Supporters say that 230 House members have now agreed to cosponsor a measure that would give all state and federal prisoners easier access to DNA testing to try to prove claims of innocence.
The legislation also would provide new protections for defendants in death penalty cases, including nationally set minimum competency standards for their court-appointed attorneys.
''With this number of cosponsors, we could pass this bill if it came to the floor,'' said Representative Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois, who joined Delahunt in introducing the bill two years ago.
Sixty Republicans are cosponsors, including such well-known conservative death penalty supporters as Representatives Dan Burton of Indiana and Philip M. Crane of Illinois.
However, it is unclear whether the legislation will be approved by the House Judiciary Committee, which is necessary for the bill to reach the House floor.
A spokesman for the Judiciary Committee chairman, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, said Sensenbrenner has not yet decided whether he will allow the committee to consider the measure.
The legislation was first introduced in 2000 after Governor George Ryan of Illinois imposed a moratorium on executions. Ryan acted after the state had exonerated 13 death row inmates, more people than had been executed since Illinois reinstated the death penalty in 1977.
Last week, Governor Parris Glendening of Maryland declared a moratorium on executions in his state until a study is completed on possible racial and geographic discrimination in death sentences.
Legislatures in Nebraska and New Hampshire passed bills to suspend or abolish the death penalty, but the governors in those states vetoed them. Ten states are conducting studies of capital punishment systems.
The House legislation would work mostly by making some federal law-enforcement grants to state governments contingent on adoption of safeguards against executing innocent prisoners.
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