Bad Lawyers and the Death Penalty.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (EDPA), among other restrictions on civil liberties, imposed a one-year statute of limitations on federal habeas corpus filings for those convicted under state law, subject to a few very narrow exceptions. In order for this provision to not produce gross injustice there must be adequate counsel for people facing criminal sentences; otherwise, defendants may be executed or serve long prison terms because their lawyers failed to raise constitutional claims in a timely manner.

Today's decision in Holland v. Florida reminds us, however, that too often adequate counsel is lacking. In a decision that will provide redress for at least some extreme cases, the Supreme Court held 7-2 that EDPA left room for "equitable tolling" -- that is, the statute of limitations does not apply in cases where a prisoner could not have raised his or her claim.

In the case in question, the statute of limitations cannot apply because of Holland's attorney. Justice Breyer's opinion for the Court gives all of the grim details, but in summary Holland's attempts to file for a federal writ failed because his lawyer 1) failed to communicate with his client and 2) actually had less of an understanding of the applicable law than his client.

The Court's decision is salutary, but the fact that defendants facing capital sentences can and do receive counsel this inept should continue to raise serious questions about the death penalty as it's actually applied by state courts.

--Scott Lemieux

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