Clinton-Era Law Costing Death Row Prisoners Chance At Appeal

George Lavender

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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.” 

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