U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules for Persistent Death-Row Inmate Whose Lawyer Blew Habeas Deadline

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The U.S. Supreme Court is giving a Florida death row inmate a chance to challenge his conviction, despite his lawyer’s failure to file a habeas appeal within the one-year deadline.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the statute of limitations governing federal habeas appeals may be tolled for equitable reasons in extraordinary circumstances. The case of inmate Albert Holland may qualify, the court said, and remanded for further proceedings.

Holland had correctly informed his court-appointed lawyer, Bradley Collins, that he was wrong about the time period for filing a federal habeas appeal, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in the majority opinion (PDF). Before that, Holland had complained repeatedly to the courts asking for new counsel and had written several letters to Collins seeking updates on his case. The Florida Supreme Court denied Holland’s pro se requests for a new lawyer on the ground they should have been made through his counsel.

Breyer’s opinion included the text of several of Holland’s polite letters. “Dear Mr. Collins,” the letters began, “How are you? Fine, I hope.” A letter to the clerk of the Florida Supreme Court offered, “I’m not trying to get on your nerves. I just would like to know exactly what is happening with my case on appeal to the Supreme Court of Florida.” After Holland learned on his own—in the prison library—that the Florida Supreme Court had ruled against him, and a habeas appeal had not been filed by the deadline, he filed his own pro se petition and complained to the Florida Bar. Holland finally got a new lawyer.

“This case may well be an ‘extraordinary’ instance in which petitioner’s attorney’s conduct constituted far more than ‘garden variety’ or ‘excusable neglect,’ ” Breyer wrote. “Here, Collins failed to file Holland’s federal petition on time despite Holland’s many letters that repeatedly emphasized the importance of his doing so. Collins apparently did not do the research necessary to find out the proper filing date, despite Holland’s letters that went so far as to identify the applicable legal rules. Collins failed to inform Holland in a timely manner about the crucial fact that the Florida Supreme Court had decided his case, again despite Holland’s many pleas for that information. And Collins failed to communicate with his client over a period of years, despite various pleas from Holland that Collins respond to his letters.”

In a partial concurrence, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. elaborated on the standards that he believes should be applied on remand. A lawyer miscalculation shouldn’t meet the standard for tolling, he wrote, but the allegations in this case, if true, involve an inmate who made reasonable efforts to obtain new counsel and a lawyer who was “not operating as his agent in any meaningful sense of that word.”

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.

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