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Executing on a Technicality

Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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March 9, 2010

When a person accused of a crime goes free, we often hear the refrain, “He got off on a technicality.” In reality, these technicalities often involve a violation of a person’s constitutional rights. In the case of Holland v. Florida, argued before the Supreme Court last week, a technicality may determine whether Albert Holland lives or dies.

In the Holland case, the court will decide a technical question about the rules that govern federal habeas corpus review, which is a federal court appeal of a death sentence handed down in state court. A federal habeas corpus review assesses a case for violations of the U.S. Constitution. Every death-sentenced defendant has the right to this review, and it’s crucial, because studies show (PDF) that in 37 percent of cases, federal courts throw out death sentences after finding serious constitutional violations.

The first thing to know about federal habeas corpus review is that there are many complexities to filing a petition. There are rules about precisely when, where, and how a federal constitutional claim must be raised in the state courts. And those rules are also bound by Supreme Court case law and federal law. If a lawyer violates any of these rules, the client risks execution even if his death sentence violates the federal constitution.

One such rule took Albert Holland to the Supreme Court. Albert Holland was assigned an attorney by the State of Florida to appeal his death sentence (also known as a “capital appeal”). Florida has a statute saying attorneys assigned in such cases must be “competent.” But Holland’s appointed attorney was far from competent: despite Holland’s repeated requests to his attorney to file the petition and keep him updated on the status of his case, his attorney failed to file the petition in a timely manner, prompting the federal district court to dismiss the petition without deciding its merits. Holland even attempted to have the attorney removed from his case because he appeared to be incompetent and unconcerned, and Holland made every possible effort to obtain necessary information about his case so that he could file the petition himself.

In the Supreme Court, Holland argued that he should not forfeit his right to federal review based on his attorney’s gross negligence. We supported his argument with a friend-of-the-court brief demonstrating that the deadline should be forgiven in certain narrow circumstances. But this case presents a more basic question of fairness: why should a death-sentenced inmate who does everything he possibly can to follow these complex rules, lose his life due to the gross negligence of an attorney assigned by the state? At Thursday’s oral argument (PDF), the lawyer representing the State of Florida suggested that only in instances of “extreme attorney incompetence” should missing the federal deadline be forgiven. This suggestion prompted Chief Justice Roberts to ask, “[W]hy isn’t it extreme attorney incompetence to miss a deadline?”

For Albert Holland, much hangs on how the court answers the Chief Justice’s question. Whether a federal court ever rules on the merits of his constitutional arguments against his death sentence should not depend on a technicality. We can only hope the Supreme Court agrees.

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