By Dave Lindorff
Those wrongly convicted of a felony in a state court who hope to get a federal judge to review their case had better hope that the decision was "unreasonable," not simply "incorrect." At least that seems to be the position of a badly split Supreme Court, which on April 18 took its first
serious look at the limits on habeas corpus - the right to appeal to the federal courts - imposed by the 1996 federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. In two Virginia death penalty cases - both coincidentally called Williams v. Taylor - the Supreme Court held that convicts have a limited right to appeal their state judgments and sentences in federal court.
The strongest decision involved the case of Michael Williams, on Virginia Death Row thanks largely to the testimony of his accomplice in a murder.Williams was seeking a new trial on the grounds that the prosecutor in his case had withheld information from the defense concerning a possible bias on the part of a jury member, who was the wife of the local sheriff and a former client of the prosecutor. A federal court had ordered a new trial, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, known for its hard-line support of the death penalty, overturned that decision citing the Effective Death Penalty Act.
Among its many limitations of habeas corpus, the law states that federal judges must limit their review of state court decisions to the facts of a case as determined by the state courts themselves. What's more, new evidence may not be introduced if it could have been uncovered during the original trial - even if it points to a defendant's innocence.
The Supreme Court, in reversing the Fourth Circuit, unanimously held that Williams deserved a new trial. Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the lower court was wrong to deny Williams a new trial simply because he had failed to develop the evidence of juror misconduct. The question, he wrote, was "whether the prisoner made a reasonable attempt, in light of the information available at the time" to investigate the matter. In fact, the prosecutor had hidden the information from the defense, making such an attempt impossible. Williams was rescued from the gallows a scant two hours before his execution date, when the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case.
Dave Lindorff is working on a book about the Mumia Abu-Jamal case for Common Courage Press.