CHICAGO (CN) - The 7th Circuit revived late habeas claims after blaming the lapsed deadline on a prison official who failed to mail the motion to the Wisconsin court.
Elliot Ray was convicted of reckless homicide for a retaliatory shooting that left an 11-year-old girl dead and two others injured. At Ray's trial, a detective introduced out-of-court statements in which two other men from the altercation accused Ray of shooting the fatal rounds. Ray's attorney did not object to the testimony.
An appeals court later rejected Ray's claims that the detective's testimony violated the confrontation clause, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined review.
Ray's motion for post-conviction relief in state court also proved unsuccessful, but his petition for federal habeas petition made its way to the 7th Circuit.
In April 2010, the federal appeals court held that "the evidence presented by the prosecution delivered to the jury statements by named co-actors, not available for cross-examination, accusing Ray of the very crimes with which he stood charged," and "the evidence was a clear violation of Ray's constitutional right of confrontation."
The 7th Circuit remanded the case to the Eastern District of Wisconsin to determine the timeliness of Ray's petition.
Ray and state prosecutors offered conflicting versions as to the filing of Ray's state court habeas petition, which was denied in October 2006 as untimely
Ray claimed to have given his motion, complete with prepaid postage, to a prison social worker for mailing in 2004. After several unsuccessful attempts to follow up with the social worker, Ray sent a notarized letter to the clerk and learned that the motion had never been filed.
The state accused Ray of "concocting a sophisticated scheme," involving forged mailing receipts and a false story, to disguise his untimely petition.
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit picked up the case again after U.S. District Judge William Greisbach sided with the state and dismissed Ray's petition.
Because Ray's constitutional rights were clearly violated during his criminal trial, the federal appeals court limited its consideration to deciding whether Ray "filed" the motion by delivering it to a prison official, as well as whether Ray actually gave the motion to the social worker.
The case raised two questions of first impression in the 7th Circuit.
"First, whether the mailbox rule applies to toll AEDPA's one-year limitations period," according to the majority opinion authored by Judges Ann Claire Williams.
"Second, if the mailbox rule applies, which party bears the burden of proof on the matter of timeliness when the state court never receives the prisoner's motion," Williams added.
Under a "mailbox rule," federal notice of appeal is considered filed at the moment the prisoner delivers it to a prison official for mailing. Such rules attempt to address the difficulty that prisoners face tracking prison handling of legal mail.
Williams and Judge William Bauer found that the mailbox rule also applies to Wisconsin post-conviction petitions.
"We agree with the majority of our sister circuits and hold that the mailbox rule applies to a state pro se prisoner's post-conviction filings unless the state where the prisoner was convicted has clearly rejected the rule," Williams wrote.
Because Wisconsin does not explicitly reject the mailbox rule, there is no reason that it should not apply.
Citing decisions by the 5th, 9th and 11th Circuits, the judges then applied a "burden shifting" approach to Ray's claims that the petition had been delivered to prison officials. Once a prisoner makes a threshold evidentiary showing under this framework, the burden of proof shifts to the state.
The power imbalance inherent in the prison-prisoner relationship makes this framework compelling, Williams noted.
"The state could require its prisons to implement detailed intake and outgoing procedures for prisoner mail, including signatures on receipt, copies of envelopes addressed to the court, or other mechanisms aimed at closely tracking prisoner mail," she wrote. "We see no reason why a prison's failure to institute such procedures should serve to penalize pro se prison litigants."
Turning to the merits, Williams and Bauer said that the trial court relied on mere speculation to asses Ray's "credibility."
Judge Daniel Manion authored a separate opinion, concurring and dissenting in part.
"The District Court's factual findings, far from being clearly erroneous, were compelled by contradictions and implausibilities in Ray's story and the documentary evidence," Manion wrote.
"Moreover, while I agree the prison mailbox rule applies ... I disagree that the state bore the burden of proving that Ray had not given the purported state post-conviction motion to a social worker," he aadded.
On remand, the District Court must grant the writ of habeas corpus unless Wisconsin elects to retry Ray within 120 days.