WASHINGTON (CN) - A Rhode Island prisoner jailed on multiple first-degree rape charges more than a 11 years ago can file a motion seeking a lighter sentence, the Supreme Court said Monday.
Writing for the unanimous court, Justice Samuel Alito said that because Khalil Kholi was requesting a "collateral review" of his multiple life sentences, and not a direct review of his conviction itself, his request annulled a one-year deadline for filing a federal habeas petition.
The justices found that the case turned on the phrase "collateral review," with the point of controversy being a disagreement between the parties as to how that phrase should be defined.
"Rhode Island argued that 'collateral review' includes only legal challenges to a conviction or sentence and thus excludes motions seeking a discretionary sentence reduction," Alito wrote. "Kholi, on the other hand, maintained that 'collateral review' is 'review other than review of a judgment in the direct appeal process' and thus includes motions to reduce sentence."
The high court agreed with Kholi's understanding of the phrase.
Kholi was convicted on 10 counts of first-degree sexual assault in 1993, and was sentenced to consecutive life terms. His 1996 motion to reduce that sentence was denied by the state superior court and then upheld by the state Supreme Court.
While his appeal was pending in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Kholi filed a petition for post-conviction relief in state superior court, which was rejected in 2003. The decision was affirmed by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2006.
In 2007, Kholi filed for habeas relief in District Court, and the state moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that it was barred by the one-year statute of limitations. A federal judge agreed, but the 1st Circuit reversed on appeal, saying Kholi's motion qualified as an "application for state post-conviction or other collateral review," which tolls the one-year time limit.
Rhode Island challenged this ruling on two grounds, the first being that Kholi's motions effectively challenged the lawfulness of the prior judgment.
But the high court said this argument reads far too much into earlier references to "collateral review" that have come before the court.
"While our opinions have used the phrase 'collateral review' to refer to proceedings that challenge the lawfulness of a prior judgment, we have never suggested that the phrase may properly be used to describe only proceedings of this type," Alito wrote.
Rhode Island's interpretation, he continued, would also greatly complicate the work of federal habeas courts.
"Rhode Island would require those courts to separate motions for a reduced sentence into two categories: those that challenge a sentence on legal grounds and those that merely ask for leniency," the decision states.
This, according to the Supreme Court, would be "problematic."
Rhode Island's had also argued that the meaning of the phrase "collateral review" should turn on whether the motion or application that triggers review is captioned as a part of the criminal case or as a separate proceeding.
One reason it offered was that the methods of filing for post-conviction or collateral review vary among the states.
"We thus define 'collateral review' according to its ordinary meaning," Alito wrote. "It refers to judicial review that occurs in a proceeding outside of the direct review process."
Justice Antonin Scalia concurred with all but a footnote of Alito's opinion. The footnote in question discussed whether the merits of Kholi's case would have been altered had his petition been part of a direct review. Although not addressed in the filings or oral arguments, Alito held that the court's disposition of the case would not change and that the habeas petition would still be timely. Scalia disagreed.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.