Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Habeas Corpus - Federal Statute of Limitations - Eleventh Circuit Holds That Postconviction Counsel's Misconduct Does Not Excuse Untimely Petition

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Habeas Corpus - Federal Statute of Limitations - Eleventh Circuit Holds That Postconviction Counsel's Misconduct Does Not Excuse Untimely Petition

Article excerpt

HABEAS CORPUS--FEDERAL STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS --ELEVENTH CIRCUIT HOLDS THAT POSTCONVICTION COUNSEL'S MISCONDUCT DOES NOT EXCUSE UNTIMELY PETITION. --Smith v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, 703 F.3d 1266 (11th Cir. 2012) (per curiam), reh'g en banc denied, No. 1113802 (11th Cir. Feb. 19, 2013).

When a prisoner challenging his death sentence misses a filing deadline, the mistake can be deadly. In Holland v. Florida, (1) the Supreme Court tried to limit this risk for inmates who miss the statute of limitations on federal habeas petitions due to attorney error. Using agency law principles, the Court held that this deadline can be equitably tolled if an inmate proves that his lawyer was no longer acting as his agent. (2) In Smith v. Commissioner, Alabama Department of Corrections, (3) the Eleventh Circuit recently held that an Alabama death row inmate's lawyers were acting as his agents when they missed a filing deadline, even though one lawyer was not licensed to practice in Alabama and the other was suffering from a severe drug addiction. (4) This troubling result shows how agency law can fail to protect inmates from grave misconduct by their lawyers. Instead, courts should equitably toll the deadline on federal habeas petitions based on whether a postconviction lawyer provided ineffective assistance.

Even though the ineffective assistance of counsel standard normally does not apply after a criminal conviction is final, the Supreme Court recently used it to excuse missed postconviction deadlines in a different context. In Martinez v. Ryan, (5) the Court held that ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel could excuse untimely claims in the initial round of state postconviction proceedings if these proceedings were the first time a prisoner could file the claims. (6) Martinez and Holland excused separate procedural restrictions on federal habeas petitions. Martinez altered the procedural-default rule, which bars federal courts from hearing habeas claims that a state court defaulted for procedural reasons. (7) Holland excused filings that missed the federal deadline. Whereas Martinez permitted relief based on ineffective assistance, Holland failed to specify a precise standard. (8) Each case was an important and distinct step in protecting inmates from inadequate postconviction lawyers. (9) Martinez was the first time the Court used the ineffective assistance standard for postconviction counsel. Holland was the first time the Court held that the filing deadline on federal habeas petitions is subject to equitable tolling. Allowing equitable tolling when a habeas petitioner misses the federal filing deadline because of an ineffective postconviction lawyer would link these developments.

Ronald Bert Smith was convicted of murder in 1995. (10) Though the jury voted against the death penalty, the trial judge rejected the recommendation and sentenced him to death. (11) Smith's conviction became final five years later on October 2, 2000, when the United States Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari. (12) The federal habeas statute requires state prisoners to file habeas petitions within a year of a conviction becoming final, but this deadline can be statutorily tolled while a postconviction filing is pending in state court. (13) As such, Smith had until October 2, 2001, to preserve his right to federal review of any claim that killing him would be unconstitutional.

Because Alabama does not provide lawyers to indigent death row inmates, (14) the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative recruited Tennessee attorney William Massey to represent Smith pro bono. (15) Massey was not licensed to practice in Alabama, so C. Wade Johnson, an Alabama attorney, signed on as local counsel. (16) Unknown to Smith, Johnson was suffering from a debilitating drug addiction. (17) Months after joining the case, Johnson was caught visiting a client in prison with a bag full of crystal meth in his car. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.