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Posted by on Jun 15, 2010 in Breaking News, Law | 0 comments

Holland v. Florida: How Bad Must A Death Penalty Lawyer Be?

Albert Holland, Jr.

In a 7-2 decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the time for filing a federal Habeas Corpus Petition could be extended by “equitable tolling” of the statute of limitations where the conduct of an attorney was sufficiently egregious. The case arises from the first degree murder conviction and death sentence for Albert Holland, Jr. He was convicted of killing a police officer.

Here’s what happened. After his conviction and death sentence, Holland presented a direct appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. That appeal was denied. He then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court on collateral issues. That appeal was also denied. From that point he had one year to file a federal Habeas Corpus Petition under the federal Effective Death Penalty Act [EDPA]. The EDPA was enacted, in part, to reduce the time spent in various appeals in capital cases.

During the time between the decisions by the Florida Supreme Court and the time to file the federal habeas petition, Holland wrote numerous letters to his attorney, Bradley Collins. Among Holland’s requests were that he be given news of the Florida Supreme Court decisions and that his attorney file for federal habeas relief. The attorney consistently failed to respond to Holland’s requests for information. He also failed to respond to Holland’s request to file the habeas action even though Holland pointed out the one year limitation on filing under EDPA. Frustrated by his attorney’s failure to respond or file the petition, Holland requested Collins removal and that he receive a new court appointed attorney. The request was denied.

When Holland learned, five weeks after the filing deadline had passed, that the petition had not been filed, he submitted his own petition pro se. A pro se petition is one filed without the assistance of an attorney. In his petition, Holland argued that the one year time limit should be waived because of his attorney’s failure to file despite Holland’s attempts to move the attorney to do so. The trial court dismissed Holland’s petition and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In its opinion the Eleventh Circuit set a standard that an attorney’s misconduct must be more than grossly negligent to grant relief. It determined that relief from the one year deadline was only available if the attorney’s conduct amounted to “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment or so forth”.

Writing for the Supreme Court majority Justice Breyer found the Eleventh Circuit’s test to be “too rigid”. Court’s opinion here. The Supreme Court relied on the principle of equitable tolling, meaning that courts must look at the totality of the circumstances on a case by case basis to determine whether the EDPA deadline should be extended. Finding that Holland had exercised sufficient diligence in attempting to get his attorney to file the petition on time, the Court sent the case back to the trial court for further evidentiary presentation and factual findings on the issue of equitable tolling of the statute of limitations. Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented. Justice Scalia, in dissent, said Holland was just “out of luck” and that the decision of the Eleventh Circuit should have been upheld.

Holland v. Florida is the latest in a long line of cases questioning the competence of attorneys in death penalty cases. The training and expertise required of those attorneys varies from state to state. Monitoring and continuing education can be substantial or nearly non-existent. The United States Supreme Court has never set certain and specific constitutional standards by which to assess the performance of attorneys in death penalty cases. Like the decision in Holland, this is too often left to case by case review, often in the hands of lower court judges or state courts which may be unwilling to actively make findings that negatively impact members of the local bar or upset popular convictions and sentences.

History is replete with examples of attorney incompetence in capital murder cases. Those examples include falling asleep at trial, showing up drunk, failing to file appropriate paperwork. More importantly, those examples include the more subtle failures of not conducting a proper and thorough investigation, failing to retain proper experts or failing to subpoena necessary witnesses. Often, those lapses are found not to be sufficiently egregious to warrant action by the court, and those convicted with such marginal assistance of counsel are marched to the death chamber, all appeals exhausted.

That a federal trial court judge, an entire panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and two members of the U. S. Supreme Court believed that Holland should get no relief based on the conduct of his attorney speaks volumes to the low standards required of attorneys in cases where a client’s life is on the line. Even the decision by the seven in the majority did not give Holland his right to file a habeas petition. They only sent the case back to the same trial judge for new findings. Our courts have failed for decades to establish minimal competencies for attorneys in these most critical of cases. Holland, while a proper outcome in this particular case, again falls short of drawing a line for what is required to adequately represent a client facing murder charges and the possibility of the death penalty.

Cross posted at Elijah’s Sweete Spot.

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