Criminal Justice

Alabama Death Row Inmate Loses Appeal Because of Mistake by Troubled Lawyer

Alabama death-row inmate Ronald Smith had the bad fortune to be represented by a troubled lawyer who failed to submit either a filing fee or a motion to waive the cost along with court papers for a collateral appeal.

As a result of the error, Smith’s documents weren’t “properly filed’ by the deadline, according to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In a Dec. 28 opinion, the court barred Smith from pursuing a habeas appeal. The New York Times reports on the decision (PDF) in a Sidebar column noting “many idiosyncrasies” in the Alabama’s capital justice system.

One idiosyncrasy: Alabama is among three states that allow judges to impose the death penalty despite jurors’ recommendations for a life sentence. Smith was sentenced to death for the murder of a store clerk by a judge who used the procedure.

A second idiosyncrasy: Alabama does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in habeas proceedings. The local lawyer representing Smith, C. Wade Johnson, was a troubled man, the Times says.

“The lawyer himself was on probation for public intoxication and was addicted to crystal methamphetamine while he was being less than punctilious,” the story says. “In the months that followed, the lawyer would be charged with drug possession, declare bankruptcy and commit suicide.” Smith was also represented by a second lawyer, but he was licensed in a different state and was not licensed in Alabama.

The Times notes that the U.S Supreme Court has twice rebuked the 11th Circuit for its rigid attitude toward filing deadlines in death penalty appeals. “The appeals court does not seem to be listening,” the story says.

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