Clinton-Era Law Costing Death Row Prisoners Chance At Appeal

George Lavender

Just a day. That’s all it takes for a death row pris­on­er to lose the chance to chal­lenge their con­vic­tion in fed­er­al court. Under the Anti-Ter­ror­ism and Effec­tive Death Penal­ty Act (AED­PA) of 1996, a defen­dant has up to a year from the date of their last state appeal to file an appeal in fed­er­al court. A new inves­ti­ga­tion by the Mar­shall Project has found that since the AED­PA became law, dozens of pris­on­ers have lost that right sim­ply because they or their lawyers filed too late. Death by Dead­line” begins with the case of Ken­neth Rouse, an African-Amer­i­can man sen­tenced to death in 1992 in North Car­oli­na for the mur­der, rob­bery and attempt­ed rape of a white woman. 

One of the jurors, Joseph S. Bay­nard, admit­ted that his moth­er had been robbed, mur­dered and pos­si­bly raped years before. Bay­nard had not dis­closed this his­to­ry, he said, so that he could sit in judg­ment of Rouse, whom he called one step above a moron.” Bay­nard added that he thought black men (“nig­gers” was the term he was quot­ed as using) raped white women for brag­ging rights.

As claims of juror bias go, the evi­dence could hard­ly have been stronger. But Rouse’s final appeal was nev­er heard. Under the Antiter­ror­ism and Effec­tive Death Penal­ty Act of 1996, Rouse’s lawyers had just one year after his ini­tial state appeal to peti­tion for a last-resort hear­ing in fed­er­al court. Con­tin­ue reading… 

As the Mar­shall Project reports, Rouse’s lawyers missed the fil­ing by a sin­gle day. And Rouse’s case is not unique. Accord­ing to the Mar­shall Project arti­cle, at least 80 inmates fac­ing the death sen­tence have missed cru­cial fil­ing dead­lines ever since Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton signed the lim­i­ta­tions into law.

By miss­ing the fil­ing dead­line, those inmates have usu­al­ly lost access to habeas cor­pus, arguably the most crit­i­cal safe­guard in the Unit­ed States’ sys­tem of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. The Great Writ,” as it is often called (in Latin it means you have the body”), habeas cor­pus allows pris­on­ers to argue in fed­er­al court that the con­vic­tion or sen­tence they received in a state court vio­lates fed­er­al law. Con­tin­ue reading.. 

It’s not just death row pris­on­ers who lose the abil­i­ty to appeal their cas­es, AED­PA restrict­ed the right of pris­on­ers with life sen­tences, and oth­ers with inno­cence claims to appeal to fed­er­al courts. The AED­PA pro­vides very few excep­tions for late filing. 

Despite sev­er­al legal chal­lenges, the Supreme Court has been reluc­tant to alter the AED­PA. How­ev­er, in May 2013 the court held in the McQuiggen v Perkins case that actu­al inno­cence” was a spe­cial cir­cum­stance in which a peti­tion­er would be allowed to make a late fil­ing. A study from ear­li­er this year arrived at a con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate of 4.1% of all those sen­tenced to death were innocent. 

How­ev­er, even the excep­tion giv­en in the Perkins case is very nar­row­ly defined. A peti­tion­er must prove it is more like­ly than not that no rea­son­able juror would have con­vict­ed him in the light of the new evidence.” 

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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