Lethal Deadlines

Question: When does a deadline become a ‘dead’ line?

Answer: When the deadline in question is the crucial one that allows death row inmates to appeal their state convictions in federal courts. If defense attorneys miss this deadline it can lead to death by execution.

The Washington Post, reporting a Marshall Project feature, informed us earlier this month that over 80 prisoners have been affected by such missed deadlines; shockingly, 16 of these prisoners have already been executed.

One especially poignant example cited is that of Gregory Scott Johnson, whose inexperienced attorney used first-class mail to send his appeal to the federal court, three days before it was due. It arrived one day late. The court decreed that the attorney had ‘bungled’, and that Mr Johnson was responsible. He was executed soon afterwards.

In Willie Manning’s case the deadline was missed not because of attorney error but because the State broke its promise to provide Willie with a suitable attorney. As the article states,

“In Mississippi, Willie Jerome Manning’s first appointed attorney withdrew, citing his “most limited knowledged [sic] and familiarity with post-conviction proceedings at all.” A second attorney also withdrew, citing his lack of qualifications. A third attorney was appointed — by a court order that was misfiled, adding to the delays — seven months after Manning’s habeas deadline.”

The article does not report the state court’s exacerbation of Willie’s abandonment when it ignored his attempts to appoint a lawyer of his choice.

Fortunately, a district court excused Willie’s failure to meet the limitations period; however, this decision counted for nothing when the federal court of appeals disagreed with the ruling. Willie’s execution date was set, based on the missed deadline.

By good fortune Willie was able to argue that evidence associated with his case should be tested for DNA. He suffered the trauma of near execution, but considers himself lucky to have been spared at the eleventh hour. The DNA testing is now pending.

In a further twist affecting Willie’s other case earlier this year, the state court readily excused a missed deadline on the part of prosecutors, although the prosecutors gave no reason for the lapse. In vain did Willie’s attorney claim ‘gross inequity’: the filing was permitted well after the deadline had passed.

The two missed deadlines arose in very different circumstances, but with both there is strong evidence in Willie’s favor. Yet both times it is the State that profited.

Willie’s experience surely demonstrates that the saga of deadly deadlines is a mere symptom of something much bigger: an overall, deeply entrenched bias against those pleading for their lives on death row.

  

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