March 23, 2009
Missing deadlines in capital cases

Reading about death row inmates who lost federal appeals because their attorneys missed a filing deadline makes me angry.

The Houston Chronicle reviewed records in nine appeals that were filed too late. In some cases, lawyers or judges appear to have miscalculated or misunderstood the dates of the deadlines, which generally fall one year after state appeals are concluded. In others, computer failures or human foibles are blamed, records show.

"Any decent judges would be deeply ashamed of the quality of legal representation in most capital cases in Texas," said Stephen Bright, a leading specialist in capital case law and who directs the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. "The very least they could do about it would be to prohibit lawyers who miss the statute of limitations from taking another case and referring them to the Bar for disciplinary proceedings."


James Marcus, an expert in capital case law who teaches in the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, said missing the deadline for a federal writ of habeas corpus -- thereby waiving all federal review -- is the equivalent of "sleeping through the trial."

Federal courts, he noted, have overturned several recent Texas death cases for errors overlooked by state judges, including one involving allegations of discriminatory jury selection by Harris County prosecutors. Federal judges also awarded a new trial to another Montgomery County death row inmate this year based on new evidence presented about forensic errors in his case.

Quintin Phillippe Jones, another Texas death row inmate who also recently lost his federal appeal because of an attorney's tardiness, said he did everything he could to alert the federal courts to report problems months before his Fort Worth attorney blew his federal deadline. Jones wrote letters to the judge, filed two motions with the help of other prisoners in an attempt to get another attorney, and even sent two separate complaints to the state bar. Nothing worked.

"I heard he didn't file (on time) through another lawyer," Jones said. "I'm the one who pays for his mistake. It cost a lot, and I'm paying for it."

I've said many times that while I am not philosophically opposed to the death penalty, I have major problems with the way we implement it. This is an excellent illustration of why I feel that way. I think there should be sanctions for any attorney who misses a deadline like this without a damn good reason. Actually, I think it would be far better if there were an automatic hearing at which an attorney for the inmate must explicitly state that they do not wish to pursue any further appeals so that this can't happen by accident or neglect. I realize that the judicial system in general couldn't operate like this - there do have to be deadlines, and they do have to mean something - but when someone's life is on the line, I think we need to go that extra mile. And if that makes the whole system so unwieldy that we'd be better off scrapping the death penalty, I would not consider that to be a bad outcome. If we really can't be bothered to be more diligent than this, we shouldn't be doing it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 23, 2009 to Crime and Punishment
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