U.S. Supreme Court

ABA urges SCOTUS review in case of capital defendant whose lawyer missed habeas deadline


The American Bar Association has filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant cert in the case of a Florida death-row inmate whose lawyer failed to file habeas petition within the one-year deadline.

The ABA is urging review in the case of Paul Howell, convicted of making a pipe bomb that killed a Florida highway trooper who pulled over a car in a traffic stop. Prosecutors said the bomb, placed inside a gift-wrapped microwave oven, was intended to kill two women who knew too much about a drug-related murder, the Associated Press reported in this story. Howell is scheduled to die on Feb. 26.

The ABA brief (PDF) argues that the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals “failed to appreciate the magnitude of the change in the law” caused by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Holland v. Florida, which found that the limitations period governing federal habeas appeals may be tolled for equitable reasons in extraordinary circumstances. The decision “provided a safety valve for those extraordinary cases when the mechanisms malfunction,” the ABA said. A press release summarizes the brief’s argument.

The Florida death-row inmate in Holland had correctly informed his court-appointed lawyer that he was wrong about the time period for filing a federal habeas appeal. Before that the inmate had repeatedly asked the courts for new counsel and had written several letters to his lawyer seeking case updates.

In Howell’s case, the ABA brief says, his lawyer did not communicate with him until two weeks after the habeas filing deadline had passed. At the time, Florida did not mandate that post-conviction lawyers demonstrate the skills needed to provide a competent defense and did not receive specialized training, and the result was frequent errors by appointed capital counsel.

The attorney error, coupled with documented failures of Florida’s capital counsel system, warrant a closer look at Howell’s request for equitable relief under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), the ABA brief says.

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