Barbour v. Haley
EJI filed a class-action lawsuit challenging Alabama's failure to provide legal assistance in capital postconviction cases.
The lawsuit, filed in 2001, alleged that Alabama was the only state in the country with a significant death row population that had no state-funded mechanism to timely provide legal counsel to people who have been sentenced to death.
Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure provided only one year from the conclusion of direct appeal to investigate, prepare, and submit a petition for postconviction review. Legal counsel was almost never appointed prior to that one-year deadline, forcing people sentenced to death to spend nearly all of that time searching for counsel. Many eventually were left with no choice but to submit pro se petitions.
Rule 32’s complex procedural requirements—coupled with the State’s aggressiveness in pursuing dismissals for failure to comply perfectly with those requirements—led to almost certain summary dismissal of petitioners’ claims.
In Barbour v. Haley, a class of people sentenced to death in Alabama who were unable to afford counsel and had not been appointed counsel prior to the deadline for filing their state postconviction petitions filed a § 1983 suit against the State of Alabama in December 2001.
The complaint alleged that the failure to provide timely legal assistance in postconviction capital cases violated the plaintiffs’ rights to counsel and access to the courts. Plaintiffs asked the federal district court to order the State to alter the system to provide the constitutionally-required access.
Chief Magistrate Judge Coody of the Middle District of Alabama issued a memorandum opinion on January 23, 2006, denying relief.1 Barbour v. Haley, No. 2:01CV1530-C, 2006 WL 173652 (M.D. Ala. Jan. 23, 2006).
Plaintiffs appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. That court issued an opinion on December 8, 2006, and while it affirmed the district court’s decision, it nevertheless made clear that the postconviction counsel crises in Alabama is real and unfair:
We recognize the logic in the argument that there simply are not enough volunteer lawyers willing to undertake a full review and investigation of a case in order to initiate postconviction proceedings on behalf of a death-sentenced inmate. If we lived in a perfect world, which we do not, we would like to see the inmates obtain the relief they seek in this case.
The Eleventh Circuit ultimately ruled that it could not order the relief sought by Plaintiffs. Specifically, the court concluded that it was bound by the Supreme Court decision in Murray v. Giarratano, which “established a categorical rule that there is no federal constitutional right to postconviction counsel.”
The challenge to Alabama’s refusal to appoint postconviction counsel in death penalty cases was taken to the Supreme Court, which denied review.