Shortly after Christmas, the Eleventh Circuit barred an appeal from Ronald B. Smith, a death row inmate in Alabama, due to his failure to “properly file” a document by the court deadline. The filing was actually timely but his lawyer failed to include a $154 filing fee or, in the alternative, file a motion that his client was indigent. He was indigent but that did not stop the Eleventh Circuit from barring the death row appeal. The Supreme Court has twice rebuked the Eleventh Circuit for its draconian treatment of such minor rules in capital cases but the judges on that court continue to dispense with notions of equity and proportionality (and justice) in barring such appeals. It turns out that his lawyer was under probation at the time and later committed suicide.
The case reminds many of us of the actions by Texas Judge Sharon Keller and other judges.
Notably, the appeal has merit. The jury in the case voted seven to five against the death penalty but Alabama allows the judge to override the recommendation and the judge sentenced him to death.
To make this even more unjust, it turns out that Smith’s lawyer himself was on probation for public intoxication and addicted to crystal methamphetamine. His lawyer, C. Wade Johnson, would ultimately be charged with drug possession, declare bankruptcy and commit suicide. Yet, none of this made any difference to the judge on the Eleventh Circuit.
Alabama has been repeatedly criticized by the Court for its capital justice system, including the failure of the state to supply counsel for indigent defendants in post-conviction cases.
The Eleventh Circuit however found that the involvement of another attorney (even though he was not licensed to practice in Alabama) made the failure to pay the small fee or file the perfunctory motion inexcusable. Judge Rosemary Barkett dissented noted rather obviously that “it is unjust and inequitable,” she wrote, “to require death row inmates to suffer the consequences of their attorneys’ negligence.”
Source: NY Times