(CN) – The Supreme Court on Monday eased the filing standards for a Florida death row inmate who claimed his attorney ignored repeated requests for information about his case and failed to file a federal habeas petition within the one-year deadline.
Traditionally, courts can excuse late appeals only if a death row inmate has diligently pursued his rights and can prove that “some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way” to prevent timely filing.
Albert Holland said his court-appointed attorney, Bradley Collins, repeatedly dropped the ball in appealing his first-degree murder conviction and death sentence.
Between April 2003 and January 2006, Collins communicated with Holland just three times via letter, leaving Holland feeling “abandoned.” Collins allegedly ignored several requests to keep Holland informed about his case and disregarded reminders to prepare an appeal after the Florida Supreme Court upheld Holland’s conviction and sentence.
Holland also wrote letters to the Florida Supreme Court and the Florida Bar Association, seeking Collins’ removal from his case. “[I have] no idea what is going on with [my] capital case on appeal,” Holland wrote.
When Collins failed to file a timely habeas petition on Holland’s behalf, Holland filed one himself, about five weeks after the one-year deadline. His sparse correspondence with Collins showed that the prisoner even corrected his attorney on few points of law.
The district court dismissed Holland’s petition on the grounds that his attorney’s negligence was not an “extraordinary circumstance,” and that Holland did not demonstrate “due diligence” to excuse the late filing.
The 11th Circuit in Atlanta agreed, adding that an attorney’s unprofessional conduct — even if grossly negligent — does not excuse a late filing unless the petitioner can prove “bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, mental impairment or so forth.”
On appeal, Holland argued that his “complete abandonment” by Collins merited equitable tolling, or acceptance of a late habeas petition.
The Supreme Court found the federal appeals court’s standard “too rigid.”
“Holland not only wrote his attorney numerous letters seeking crucial information and providing direction; he also repeatedly contacted the state courts, their clerks, and the Florida State Bar Association in an effort to have Collins — the central impediment to the pursuit of his legal remedy — removed from his case,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the 7-2 majority.
“Because the district court erroneously relied on a lack of diligence, and because the court of appeals erroneously relied on an overly rigid per se approach, no lower court has yet considered in detail the facts of this case to determine whether they indeed constitute extraordinary circumstances sufficient to warrant equitable relief.”
The high court reversed and remanded for a determination of whether Holland’s case warrants an extension.
Dissenting Justice Antonin Scalia said courts cannot relax the one-year deadline “for additional reasons beyond those Congress included” (original emphasis). And even if they could, Scalia added, Holland would not qualify for an extension.
Justice Clarence Thomas joined the second part of Scalia’s dissent.