Ruthless, antiquated death penalty laws may needlessly take another life

Because of legal misconduct and mismanagement, Eugene Clemons—after a 21-year appeal process—could be subjected to the death penalty due to an Act passed under Bill Clinton in 1996

We go to ProPublica for this week’s long read by Seth Freed Wessler , read the whole article “Eugene Clemons May Be Ineligible for the Death Penalty. A Rigid Clinton-Era Law Could Force Him to Be Executed Anyway.” We include key excerpts below to convince you it’s worth your time.

Technical errors and misplaced documents might cost Clemons his life; lawyers can’t do anything about it

“On December 27, 1999, lawyer James S. Christie’s courier had delivered the filing to the clerk’s office and been handed back a copy, stamped at the top in red and blue with the words “received & filed,” along with the date and the clerk’s name. Christie had that copy of the document right there in his hand.”

“The 41-page petition contained critical information — claims no court had yet considered — about a man named Eugene Clemons. It described how his lawyers, when it came time to argue that his life should be spared for killing a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, completely ignored the long history of abuse Clemons had suffered. They’d also failed to point out that Clemons had well-documented mental disabilities”

“They hoped and expected that the filing would allow Clemons’ appeal to leave Alabama courts and enter federal court, for what’s called a habeas corpus hearing.”
“Because the document had been lost, nobody in the county clerk’s office was able to ask Christie to correct the error by paying the fee or filing the form. Christie later filed an amended petition with the form, but it was too late. By refusing to certify the earlier filing on the date the clerk had initially stamped it, the state of Alabama was ensuring Clemons would never get his claims heard by a federal court”


“The misplaced document, whether Christie’s fault or the clerk’s or both, would not have caused any trouble before April 1996. A rigid one-year deadline for filing federal habeas petitions was imposed that year by the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. The law, a frenzied anti-crime response to the Oklahoma City bombing the previous year, is widely considered to contain the most significant curtailment of habeas rights in 150 years.”

“As one federal judge, a Reagan appointee, wrote in 2015, “We now regularly have to stand by in impotent silence.” In 2020, referring to Clemons’ case, a judge on the 11th Circuit likened the legal threshold for winning a federal habeas appeal to “crossing the ocean into the abyss of unreasonableness.”

“The impact of the law has outpaced even the dire predictions of AEDPA’s most strident opponents. In the 22 years prior to the law’s passage, 40% of death row defendants who had habeas petitions heard by federal courts succeeded in getting their verdict or their sentence overturned, according to data compiled by the legal scholars David Dow and Eric Freedman.”

“This, they say, almost certainly means that people whose death sentences would have been overturned are still on death row, or have been executed, as a result of AEDPA.”

Bottom line

“In its reply to Clemons’ Supreme Court petition, Alabama said that 31 of the 32 claims in his habeas petition are moot because of that late filing fee: “His counsel’s failure to properly file [the petition] before AEDPA’s limitations period expired was the result of their negligence.”

“Opponents of AEDPA say that any possible reform — and any restoration of habeas rights — likely will have to start in Congress.

Biden has said that he will back legislation to end the federal death penalty and press states to follow. (Many states, including Alabama, are extremely unlikely to do so.) But as president, he has said nothing about AEDPA, nor has any member of Congress floated any legislation to change it.”

‘Congress has written a statute that keeps courts from doing what they are supposed to do,” said Eric Freedman, a leading habeas scholar at Hofstra University’s law school. ‘They could reform it.’”

Read the whole article here.

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