"When Death Row Lawyers Stumble, Clients Take the Fall," is Adam Liptak's Sidebar column for tomorrow's print edition of the New York Times. Here's the beginning:
Twice in recent years, the Supreme Court rebuked the federal appeals court in Atlanta for its rigid attitude toward filing deadlines in capital cases. The appeals court does not seem to be listening.
A few days after Christmas, a divided three-judge panel of the court ruled that Ronald B. Smith, a death row inmate in Alabama, could not pursue a challenge to his conviction and sentence because he had not “properly filed” a document by a certain deadline.
As it happens, there is no dispute that the document was filed on time. But it was not “properly filed,” the majority said, because Mr. Smith’s lawyer did not at the same time pay the $154 filing fee or file a motion to establish something also not in dispute — that his client was indigent.
Nor did the majority place much weight on the fact that the lawyer himself was on probation for public intoxication and addicted to crystal methamphetamine while he was being less than punctilious. In the months that followed, the lawyer would be charged with drug possession, declare bankruptcy and commit suicide.
Mr. Smith is almost surely guilty of murdering a convenience store clerk in 1994 in Huntsville, Ala. But it is not clear that he deserves to die for his crime.
His jury, by a vote of seven to five, determined that the murder did not warrant the death penalty, recommending instead that Mr. Smith be sentenced to life in prison.
But the Alabama capital justice system has many idiosyncrasies. One of them is that it allows judges to override such recommendations. The judge rejected the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Mr. Smith to death.
Only two other states, Delaware and Florida, allow such overrides. But it has been decades since anyone was sentenced to death in either state after a jury recommended life.