Supreme Court gives hope to some death-row inmates
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that, under extraordinary circumstances, courts should accept death row appeals even after a one-year statute of limitations has expired.
The US Supreme Court has made it easier for some death row inmates to overcome a one-year statute of limitations for filing a federal appeal of their capital sentence.Skip to next paragraph
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The high court ruled 7 to 2 on Monday that under certain extraordinary circumstances courts should allow an appeal to be filed even after the one-year deadline has expired.
The decision came in the case of Florida death row inmate Albert Holland, who lost his right to file a federal appeal of his death sentence when his lawyer missed the one-year deadline established under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).
The attorney would have to have acted with “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, or mental impairment” to be excused from the deadline. Negligence – even gross negligence – wasn’t enough, the appeals court said.
In reversing that decision, the Supreme Court said the appeals court’s standard was “too rigid.”
“We have previously held that a garden variety claim of excusable neglect, such as a simple miscalculation that leads a lawyer to miss a filing deadline, does not warrant [an exemption from the deadline],” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the majority opinion.
"But this case before us does not involve, and we are not considering, a garden variety claim of attorney negligence,” he said. “Rather, the facts of this case present far more serious instances of attorney misconduct.”
In Holland’s case, his court-appointed lawyer failed to file Holland’s appeal on time and appeared to be unaware of the date on which the appeal limitations period expired. This happened despite repeated letters and attempted communications by Holland with his lawyer, urging the lawyer to avoid running past the deadline. At one point the lawyer failed to communicate with Holland for several years despite letters from Holland pleading for information about his pending appeals.
“Here Holland not only wrote his attorney numerous letters seeking crucial information and providing direction; he also repeatedly contacted state courts, their clerks, and the Florida State Bar Association in an effort to have [his lawyer] – the central impediment to the pursuit of his legal remedy – removed from his case,” Breyer wrote. “The very day that Holland discovered that his AEDPA clock had expired due to [his lawyer’s] failings, Holland prepared his own habeas petition… and filed it with the district court.”