The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether it is too late for an Alabama man to argue that the murder that sent him to death row was not a capital crime when he committed it.
The inmate, Billy Joe Magwood, shot and killed Sheriff Neil Grantham in 1979 in front of the Coffee County jail. At the time, Alabama law imposed two requirements before the state’s judges could sentence defendants to death: the commission of one of 14 listed offenses and the existence of certain “aggravating circumstances.”
The murder of a peace officer like a sheriff was a listed offense. But Mr. Magwood’s crime did not satisfy the second requirement. The question before the Supreme Court is whether he took too long to raise the argument that he could not have lawfully been sentenced to death.
Although Mr. Magwood’s lawyers challenged his sentence on other grounds over the years, it was not until 1997 that they raised the question of whether his was a capital crime under Alabama law. In the meantime, a federal judge, acting on other grounds, ordered Mr. Magwood resentenced in 1985. He was again sentenced to death the next year.
A 1996 federal law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, imposes strict limits on successive federal habeas corpus petitions. Under the law, a petition challenging Mr. Magwood’s original death sentence might well be barred, given his earlier challenges. But Mr. Magwood argues that he is challenging his 1986 resentencing for the first time.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled in January that since Mr. Magwood could have challenged his original sentence on the grounds he now asserts, he cannot raise them now.
In urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case, Magwood v. Culliver, No. 09-158, Attorney General Troy King of Alabama said Mr. Magwood’s argument “unquestionably could have been, but was not, raised during his first round of litigation 20-plus years earlier.”
There appears to be little dispute that a literal reading of the law in effect at the time of the murder did not allow Mr. Magwood to be sentenced to death.
In a 1981 decision in another case, the Alabama Supreme Court acknowledged that “a literal and technical reading of the statute” would forbid the death penalty in circumstances like Mr. Magwood’s. But the court called that result “completely illogical” and “an anomaly in Alabama’s death penalty statute” that could not have been intended by the State Legislature.
Lyle Denniston posted, "Court adds one new case," yesterday at SCOTUS Blog.
The new habeas case that the Court will hear involves an Alabama death-row inmate, Billy Joe Magwood of New Brockton. He was sentenced to die for murdering a county sheriff in front of the county jail. He has long suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and believed that the Army had sent him orders through a surgically implanted device that the sheriff and other authorities were interfering with completion of his “mission.”
After an original death sentence for Magwood was overturned in 1986, he was again given a death sentence following a new proceeding in state court. After state courts rejected his challenge to the new sentence, Magwood’s lawyers filed for federal habeas, contending that he had had no notice that a state court ruling adverse to his case would be applied retroactively, and thus to his case. A federal judge ruled in his favor, but the Eleventh Circuit Court overturned that result. The Circuit Court ruled that the claim of a lack of fair warning was a second or successive habeas claim, and thus was barred. The claim could have been raised at Magwood’s initial sentencing, that court decided.
In taking the case on to the Supreme Court, Magwood’s counsel argued that habeas petitions brought against new sentences should be treated as initial, first challenges when an inmate has succeeded in winning a chance for a new sentence. Oral argument of the case is likely to be in March.
All briefing in Magwood v. Culliver is via ScotusWiki.