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Death Row Defendant Gets Reprieve From Horrid Lawyering

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June 15, 2010

Yesterday, the Supreme Court found that the one-year statute of limitation to file for federal habeas corpus review under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 can be put on hold in certain circumstances, including attorney misconduct. (Defendants usually file for federal habeas corpus review after they’re convicted and sentenced to death in state court. A federal habeas corpus review assesses the case for violations of the U.S. Constitution.)

We blogged about this case, Holland v. Florida, in March, when the Supreme Court heard the case. The first page of yesterday’s decision (PDF) pretty much spells out the problem: The client, Albert Holland, understood the law better than his attorney.

The record facts reveal […]that Holland’s court-appointed attorney, Bradley Collins, had failed to file a timely federal petition, despite Holland’s many letters emphasizing the importance of doing so; that Collins apparently did not do the research necessary to find out the proper filing date, despite the fact that Holland had identified the applicable legal rules for him; that Collins failed to inform Holland in a timely manner that the State Supreme Court had decided his case, despite Holland’s many pleas for that information; and that Collins failed to communicate with Holland over a period of years, despite Holland’s pleas for responses to his letters. Meanwhile, Holland repeatedly requested that the state courts and the Florida bar remove Collins from his case.

Which is how the case found itself before the Supreme Court. At issue in this case: can the AEDPA deadline be forgiven in circumstances of gross negligence on the part of the defendant’s attorney?

In a 7-2 decision, the court found that the deadline can be forgiven.

John Holdridge, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project said in a statement yesterday:

This decision is a victory for basic fairness. Disturbingly, there are death row inmates who have not been able to file a federal habeas petition because their attorneys missed a filing deadline. For the first time, the Court has held that they will now have an opportunity to show that they should be allowed to file a petition if the deadline has passed because of attorney misconduct or gross negligence.

Sadly, cases of attorney incompetence, negligence and misconduct are all too common in death penalty cases. As the ACLU’s Brian Stull pointed out in March: “Good and bad lawyers determine who lives and who dies.”

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