(CN) – A convicted murderer isn’t entitled to federal habeas review simply because Pennsylvania courts dismissed his death-sentence challenge based on a discretionary state “fugitive forfeiture rule,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Joseph Kindler, once featured on “America’s Most Wanted” for killing an accomplice in 1982, was sentenced to death by a Pennsylvania court in 1984.
He broke out of prison and escaped to Canada. When he was recaptured, he challenged his conviction and sentencing.
The Pennsylvania trial court dismissed his post-verdict motions, saying his flight to Canada made him ineligible for relief under the state’s fugitive forfeiture law. Kindler again escaped, remaining on the lam for two years until his recapture and extradition to the United States in 1991.
He immediately tried to reinstate his post-verdict motions, but the state courts dismissed his case.
Kindler then petitioned for federal habeas review, which the district court granted. It ruled that the Pennsylvania fugitive forfeiture rule wasn’t enough to bar federal review.
Typically, under the “adequate state ground doctrine,” a federal habeas court will not review a claim rejected by a state court “if the decision … rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.”
The district court and the 3rd Circuit determined that Kindler was entitled to federal review, because Pennsylvania’s fugitive forfeiture rule was not “firmly established.”
Pennsylvania appealed, arguing that the 3rd Circuit had found the state rule inadequate merely because it was discretionary and not mandatory.
The justices sided with the commonwealth, holding that “a discretionary state procedural rule can serve as an adequate ground to bar federal habeas review.”
“A contrary holding would pose an unnecessary dilemma for the States: States could preserve flexibility by granting courts discretion to excuse procedural errors, but only at the cost of undermining the finality of state court judgments,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote. “Or States could preserve the finality of their judgments by withholding such discretion, but only at the cost of precluding any flexibility in applying the rules.
“We are told that, if forced to choose, many States would opt for mandatory rules to avoid the high costs that come with plenary federal review. That would be unfortunate in many cases, as discretionary rules are often desirable.”
Roberts continued: “[I]t would seem particularly strange to disregard state procedural rules that are substantially similar to those to which we give full force in our own courts. Even stranger to do so with respect to rules in place in nearly every State, and all at one fell swoop.”
The high court vacated the 3rd Circuit’s judgment and remanded. Justice Samuel Alito took no part in the unanimous decision.