Tuesday, January 10, 2006

New Jersey Officially Approves Moratorium

N.J. Lawmakers Suspend Death Penalty, "New Jersey lawmakers voted Monday to suspend executions while a task force studies the fairness and costs of imposing the death penalty."

Supreme Court Releases Per Curiam Habeas Opinion

SCOTUSblog is reporting that the Supreme Court issued a habeas decision today, Evans v. Chavis. The Court held that an inmate who waits more than three years between a ruling in a lower state court and an appeal to that state's supreme court has not pursued his claims with diligence. (Link to opinion)

This post will be updated when I have an opportunity to digest the opinion.

Monday, January 09, 2006

6th Cir. Affirms Grant of Habeas

Appellate Law & Practice and Decision of the Day are discussing today's Sixth Circuit habeas case, Franklin v. Anderson. The most significant aspect of the opinion appears to be its holding that Franklin's ineffective assistance claim wasn't procedurally defaulted. Ohio state courts held that Franklin's motion asserting this claim was late. But the Sixth Circuit held that Ohio's application of this rule was inconsistent. Thus, it wasn't an adequate and independent state ground.

Alito and Habeas: Fiore v. White

I've just finished readings the American Constitution Society's white paper titled, "Judge Alito and the Death Penalty." A very interesting take. But I must say that I think the picture of Judge Alito's habeas jurisprudence is incomplete without considering the non-capital case, Fiore v. White, 149 F.3d 221 (1998). Fiore reveals the importance that Judge Alito attaches to finality in criminal cases. It represented an expansion of nonretroactivity principles that was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court.

Fiore involved a defendant convicted in Pennsylvania state court of operating a hazardous waste facility without a permit. Uncontested evidence revealed that the defendant Fiore did have a permit. The state's theory, however, was that Fiore's decision to disobey the terms of the permit meant that, he was, constructively operating without a permit. After his conviction on this theory, Fiore appealed. His conviction became final after the state supreme court denied discretionary review.

Later, the state supreme court granted direct review of an identical issue in the case of Fiore's codefendant. It reversed for insufficient evidence, holding that the statute means what it says: without a permit means that you don't have a permit. The state supreme court called the state's "constructive no permit" theory a "bald fiction which we cannot endorse."

Fiore's various applications for state post-conviction were denied. He then petitioned for habeas relief, arguing that he was convicted on the basis of facts which did not establish each element of the crime charged. After the district court granted the petition, the Third Circuit reversed. Judge Alito wrote that neither the Due Process Clause nor the Equal Protection Clause require a state to retroactively apply its legal rules. The opinion concludes:

When a decision providing a new interpretation of a state criminal statute is not made fully retroactive, some defendants convicted prior to the new interpretation will almost always continue to suffer the consequences of a conviction based on conduct that would not constitute a crime under the new interpretation, and that is the fate that has befallen Fiore. His situation is particularly striking because the new interpretation was handed down by the state courts in his co-defendant's appeal, which happened to follow a different procedural track. However, any relaxation of the Pennsylvania rules regarding retroactivity due to the particular circumstances present in this case must come from the Pennsylvania courts or the governor. Although we might be inclined to grant relief if it were within our power, the limitations of our authority under the habeas corpus statute prevent us from doing so. (Emphasis added.)


Judge Alito's opinion repeatedly asserts that the Pennsylvania supreme court's decision in the codefendant's case was a "new interpretation" of the statute at issue. But it contained no explanation for why this was so. It simply skips this analytical step. The US Supreme Court recognized the error and unanimously reversed in a per curiam opinion.

The US Supreme Court certified the "new interpretation" question to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The state court responded flatly that the "no permits means no permit" rule was "not . . . a new rule of law" but "merely clarified the plain language of the statute" and, thus, "furnishes the proper statement of law at the date Fiore's conviction became final." Given this, Fiore presented "no issue of retroactivity." The Supreme Court thus explained the "simple, inevitable conclusion" that Fiore's conviction was unconstitutional. The state presented "no evidence whatsoever" on a "basic element of the crime," i.e., that Fiore had no permit.

Judge Alito's willingness to read broadly what constitutes a "new interpretation" has obvious relevance to the Teague doctrine and its AEDPA cousins. His opinion in Fiore suggests that he would vote to expand these nonretroactivity principles.

A Moratorium... in Virginia?

The Staunton News Leader had an editorial on Saturday addressing Governor Mark Warner's decision to order DNA testing to determine whether Roger Keith Coleman was guilty of the crime for which he was executed in 1992. The editorial concludes, "If DNA evidence clears Roger Keith Coleman, it won't do him a bit of good. Nor will it assuage our collective consciences. But one thing will be clear: Virginia, perhaps the entire nation, will not be able to go about the business of applying the death penalty with confidence. At the very least, a moratorium on the practice will be appropriate. "

What is "Actual Innocence"?

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this week in House v. Bell. Willamette Law Online provides this introduction:

House v. Bell

Court below: 386 F.3d 668 (6th Cir. 2004)

CRIMINAL LAW (Standard Of Evidence Required To Support Habeas Relief)

The issue in this case is whether habeas relief may be granted by the showing of new evidence from which a reasonable juror would not convict, but does not disprove all evidence of guilt.

Paul House (House) was convicted by jury of first degree murder and sentenced to death in 1985. House appealed his conviction and sentence on various grounds in the Tennessee state courts. House then filed for habeas corpus relief in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee (District Court,) which denied his claim. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (Court of Appeals), the Court of Appeals held that it would defer to the judgment of the District Court, on the grounds that the new evidence was not so strong as to make it “more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in light of the new evidence.”

On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, House will argue that the new evidence raises enough doubt so that any reasonable juror would not find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and that even though all evidence originally presented against him at trial has not been negated, sufficient doubt has been raised to justify a new trial. House will further argue that the new evidence presented establishes a free standing claim of actual innocence and should be sufficient to allow his acquittal.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Implementing Atkins at the Trial Level

Oklahoma's highest criminal court issues ruling that says capital juries can decide mental retardation claims. Coverage here. Hat tip: Sentencing Law and Policy.

Because Prisoners Don't Have Computers, Duh!

Price v. Reid, 04-1190

The Tenth Circuit reversed a district court's dismissal of a pro se habeas petition in an interesting case yesterday. (Opinion here.)

The district court sent petitioner Price two habeas petition forms. Though it sent two, the court apparently intended Price to only file one copy of his petition. But Price completed both forms by hand and filed them. Nevertheless, the district court dismissed the habeas petition, holding that Price had failed to follow pleading rules by filing "two similar but not identical [] applications." The Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that this way no way to treat a pro se petitioner at the pleading stage. "The completed form petitions [were] essentially identical, with only one or two words different between the two, which one might expect in light of the fact that Price was writing them out by hand."

Friday, January 06, 2006

New Jersey Moratorium "Nearly Official"

Professor Berman reports that New Jersey is soon to impose an official death penalty moratorium to study the sanction's "fairness and expense."

10th Cir: Line from Apprendi to Booker not Obvious

US v. Fields, 05-2202

The Tenth Circuit denied a Certificate of Appealability yesterday, rejecting an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The habeas petitioner argued that his counsel should have objected to the federal sentencing guidelines under Apprendi. The court held that the "failure to extrapolate the holding in Booker from Apprendi" was not unreasonable. The ruling can be acessed here.