Court Maps Out End to Abusive Habeas Petitions

     (CN) – The California Supreme Court set new limits for supplemental habeas petitions, saying abuse of the process threatens to undermine the whole system.
     The court’s final straw was a 500-page second habeas corpus petition for a man convicted of brutally murdering three young boys between 1976 and 1978.
     With successive habeas cases, “abusive writ practices” like this have become “all too common,” according the 122-page decision authored by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar.
     Harold Ray Moreno was convicted in 1980 of slashing the throats of two boys while they were fishing at a pond and of sexually assaulting and strangling a 7-year-old.
     The California Supreme Court reversed the convictions in 1985 because of legal error, but the defendant met with the same conviction and sentence upon retrial.
     In 1995, after Moreno had his name legally changed to Reno, the state high court affirmed that sentence and conviction, and it rejected his first habeas petition.
     Reno said he raised 74 claims for relief in a 1998 federal habeas petition, but the court found that “many” of his claims had not yet been exhausted in state court, so it directed him to file a new petition there.
     Reno’s second state habeas petition, filed in 2004, raises 143 claims and spans 521 pages, plus exhibits.
     “Nearly all of these claims raise legal issues that are, for a variety of reasons, not cognizable or are procedurally barred in this renewed collateral attack,” Werdegar wrote for the seven-justice court.
     “This petition exemplifies abusive writ practices that cause us to deny the petition in its entirety without reaching the merits of any claim,” she added.
     The court notes that this practice “has threatened to undermine the efficacy of the system for adjudicating petitions for collateral relief in cases involving the death penalty.”
     Hoping that the problem will end with Reno, the court declined to impose financial sanctions but said such penalties “remain[] an option in future cases.”
     Werdegar outlined the new “ground rules” for exhaustion petitions to speed up the process while still allowing petitioners to raise and exhaust justifiable new claims.
     In future cases, “although a petitioner sentenced to death will still be able to file his or her initial habeas corpus petition with no limit as to length, second and subsequent petitions will be limited to 50 pages (or 14,000 words if produced by computer), subject to a good cause exception,” the decision states.
     In addition, “such petitions must clearly and frankly disclose: (a) what claims have been raised and rejected before, and where (either on appeal or on habeas corpus, with appropriate record and opinion citations); (b) what claims could have been raised before (e.g., because they are based on facts in the appellate record or were known at the time the first habeas corpus petition was filed), and why they were not raised at an earlier time; (c) what claims are truly new (that is, they have not previously been presented to this court); and (d) which claims were deemed unexhausted by the federal court and are raised for the purpose of exhaustion.”
     A habeas petitioner must also support his exhaustion disclosure with a copy of the federal court’s order, and he can put this background information in a table or chart not to exceed 10 pages that will not count against the 50-page limit.
     “This chart will permit the court to determine at a glance which claims are repetitive and which are newly alleged, and will allow us to more expeditiously evaluate the claims in the petition,” Werdegar wrote.

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