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Death penalty hearing canceled

A judge on Friday canceled a scheduled court proceeding on legal representation of death penalty defendants after news media tried to gain access.

Presiding Criminal Judge James Keppel of Maricopa County Superior Court granted a request by one of several public-defender agencies involved in the case to cancel a scheduled closed-door settlement conference that would include the judge and to instead let officials hold private talks without the judge’s participation and away from the courthouse.

David Bodney, a lawyer for Phoenix Newspapers Inc., said the public is entitled to attend court proceedings in the case, and it involves constitutional issues related to speedy trials, adequate representation and victims’ rights.

Attorney Stephen Dichter, representing the county Office of Legal Advocate, said it wasn’t worth a possible delay in settlement talks to resolve the representation issue.

Keppel said that if circumstances change and he is going to participate in a settlement conference, it would take place in open court.

At issue is a 136-defendant backlog of death penalty cases in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Defense attorneys have asked for waivers of speedy trial rules on grounds that there aren’t enough qualified defense lawyers and death-sentence mitigation specialists available to represent all the defendants.

The defense attorneys say the backlog is a result of increased death-sentence requests by County Attorney Andrew Thomas. He has opposed blanket delays, saying that defense attorneys’ stalling tactics and their unwillingness to work more death-penalty cases create the backlog.

Keppel ordered the sides to appear in court Wednesday, either to submit a settlement agreement or to start a hearing for him to gather evidence on how to resolve the representation issues.

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