Court holds that doctrine of equitable tolling potentially allows death row inmate’s habeas claims to proceed
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WASHINGTON – The Constitution Project welcomes today’s opinion from the United States Supreme Court in Holland v. Florida, holding that equitable tolling may apply to the statutory limitations period in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Mr. Holland was convicted of murder in 1996 and sentenced to death by a Florida state court. His direct and collateral appeals to Florida appellate courts were denied, beginning a limited period for filing a federal habeas petition. Despite Mr. Holland’s repeated requests for his state-appointed lawyer to file for federal habeas relief in a timely manner, the lawyer failed to do so.
Today’s Supreme Court decision clarifies that AEDPA’s limitation are subject to equitable tolling when petitioners show that they have been pursuing their rights diligently and “extraordinary circumstances” stood in their way that prevented timely filing. The Court also found that a petitioner does not have to show “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment or so forth on the lawyer’s part” in order to demonstrate that the attorney’s failure to satisfy professional standards of care constituted “extraordinary circumstances” sufficient to meet the equitable tolling standard. While the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals for further consideration about whether equitable tolling should apply in Mr. Holland’s case, the Court noted in doing so that “this case may well be an ‘extraordinary’ instance in which petitioner’s attorney’s conduct constituted far more than ‘garden variety’ or ‘excusable neglect.'”
The following can be attributed to Gerald Kogan, former Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court and Co-chair of the Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Committee:
“The Supreme Court rightfully held that the principle of equitable tolling applied to AEDPA’s statutory limitations today, and that the Court of Appeals should consider whether Albert Holland’s attorney’s conduct constituted ‘extraordinary circumstances sufficient to warrant equitable relief.’ Mr. Holland should not face the death penalty without the opportunity to exhaust all potentially valid legal claims, and those claims should not be barred due to the gross negligence of his state-appointed attorney. Denying Mr. Holland’s claims based on a procedural rule would have been a significant injustice that would cast doubt on the fundamental fairness of our criminal justice system.”
According to Constitution Project President Virginia Sloan, “Today’s decision also underscores the critical need for competent and adequately funded counsel to be appointed to capital defendants at all stages of post-conviction litigation, and for proper oversight mechanisms to ensure that these lawyers provide proper representation. Mr. Holland relied on his attorney to file the petition on time, but his lawyer failed him. Competent representation could have avoided the need for today’s decision and allowed the courts to reach the merits in a timely fashion.”
In the Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Committee’s 2005 report, Mandatory Justice: The Death Penalty Revisited, the Committee makes specific recommendations for improving the fairness of the capital punishment system. In particular, Mandatory Justice stresses that each state that permits the death penalty should appoint competent and adequately compensated counsel to capital defendants at all stages of capital litigation, including state and federal post-conviction proceedings. The report also emphasizes that procedural barriers of the kind Mr. Holland faced should not prevent courts from hearing constitutional claims.
Click here to view Mandatory Justice: The Death Penalty Revisited.