Monday, May 16, 2011

The Gutting Of Habeas For State Defendants

I have previously written about how the California Supreme Court has become little more than a rubber stamp for death sentences.  In 2010, it decided 24 automatic appeals and affirmed each and every one. State habeas proceedings are an additional avenue for criminal defendants, which, unlike direct appeals, can raise facts from outside the trial record—not that it matters in California. The Supreme Court denied 23 capital habeas corpus petitions, 22 summarily without ordering a hearing or issuing an opinion, and granted relief in none. (In 2009, the court affirmed 24 of the 25 capital appeals, and denied all 33 capital habeas petitions on which it ruled). Since 1997, the California Supreme Court has affirmed 90% of the death sentences it has reviewed, a higher rates than any other state in the country.)

The court’s refusal to reverse death sentences is not a product of error-less trials. A Columbia University study, A Broken System, published in 2000, found that between 1973 and 1995, 80% of California death judgments were reversed in federal court, and 33% were reversed by the California Supreme Court. Nationwide, the overall rate of prejudicial error was 68% over this period of time. It is simply not conceivable that all of a sudden California death penalty trials have miraculously become error free.

As the Columbia study reflects, federal courts have often been a critical safeguard for capital defendants after their cases have been rejected in state court.  But the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1995 (“AEDPA”), ostensibly aimed at speeding up the process, has increasingly circumscribed the ability of federal judges to reverse state court rulings in federal habeas corpus proceedings. 

In a new article, Cornell law professors and brilliant death penalty lawyers, John Blume, Sheri Johnson and Keir Weyble, explain how in the fifteen years since President Clinton signed AEDPDA into law, the Great Writ has been "eviscerated," and that there is a renewed push in Congress to restrict habeas even further.  This gutting of federal habeas is especially disturbing  given the failure of many states, including California, to provide adequate counsel and meaningful post-conviction review in their own systems. 

The Gutting Of Habeas For State Defendants

by John Blume, Sheri Johnson and Keir Weyble, originally published in National Law Journal, May 16, 2011.

Fifteen years ago last month, President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which made substantial changes to federal habeas corpus law. Despite his assurance that "[f]ederal courts will interpret these provisions to preserve independent review of federal legal claims," we have witnessed the evisceration of habeas in the intervening years, making justice substantially more difficult to obtain for those wrongfully convicted in state courts. Unfortunately, we are now hearing calls for more radical restrictions of habeas in a wrong-headed bid to address budget concerns.

Habeas corpus, expressly guaranteed by our Constitution, serves the criminal justice system as a final check to ensure justice has truly been served. Literally translated as "that you have the body," a habeas corpus challenge enables an individual held in the government's custody to challenge the legality of the detention.

The AEDPA's provisions have stymied federal courts by placing overly restrictive limits on a person's ability to have the merits of his or her case heard. Petitioners are barred by time limits that run too quickly, are overly complex and can be difficult to calculate, even for seasoned attorneys. Even more damning, the law prohibits federal courts from remedying miscarriages of justice; they are powerless to correct many of the state courts' misinterpretations of U.S. constitutional or federal law.

The net result is that the AEDPA has effectively closed federal courtrooms to prisoners with legitimate claims. This closing is all the more troubling given the failure of states to provide adequate counsel and meaningful post-conviction review in their own systems. Many states do not appoint counsel for post-conviction review, no matter how serious the prisoner's allegations or how incapable he or she is of presenting these complex and technical claims. Other states provide wholly inadequate compensation to counsel, resulting in the appointment of lawyers with little experience or incentive to commit the time necessary to fully develop their client's case. These and other hurdles make clear that the wrongfully convicted can often only find justice through federal habeas.

Despite the wrongfully convicted who are languishing in prison because of the AEDPA's failures, there are those who would use the current budget debate to call for further restrictions on habeas petitions. Under these proposals, habeas would be available only in capital cases and those cases in which new evidence of innocence has been found. These are misguided and costly proposals. Habeas is absolutely essential to correcting wrongful convictions, and with no alternatives, habeas filers who today would make constitutional claims would instead have to make innocence claims, which could result in far more lengthy, fact-intensive litigation.

As we reflect on the anniversary of the AEDPA and consider the injustices it has wrought, there are reforms that state and federal lawmakers could adopt to effectively reduce the need for habeas review and increase the likelihood that meritorious habeas petitions receive a full and fair hearing. First and foremost, providing effective, adequately resourced counsel for indigent defendants in the trial and appellate phases is the best chance the criminal justice system has of getting it right the first time. Passionate attorneys with the resources to investigate their clients' cases will be able to address potential problems that arise during trial. Since many habeas claims are related to ineffective assistance of counsel, this is a critical reform. Prisoners should also be appointed competent counsel for post-conviction review. Evidence shows that when petitioners are given counsel to guide them through the labyrinth of post-conviction review — as they are in capital cases — win rates go up.

Although adequate counsel will significantly reduce the need for federal review, errors will still occur in state proceedings. Congress should allow federal courts to perform robust, substantive review of habeas petitions, with the authority to correct state court holdings that erroneously apply U.S. constitutional and federal law. Beyond these proposals, there are numerous other reforms Congress can adopt to improve habeas.

Post-conviction review in the federal courts may cost some money, but certainly for the wrongfully convicted — indeed for all Americans wary of an overreaching government — the constitutional right to challenge one's detention is priceless. Congress must reform the AEDPA to restore this right to the hallowed position our founding fathers intended.

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