Alabama Supreme Court Holds Death Row Inmate Has Right to Prove His Postconviction Filing Should Be Considered


Reasoning that a person who brings about a change in the law should be rewarded for his effort, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that death row inmate John Ward is entitled to a chance to prove that his state postconviction petition should be reviewed on the merits.

Mr. Ward’s state postconviction petition was filed after the time limit expired because he could not find a competent lawyer to file it on time. The trial court summarily dismissed the petition, and Mr. Ward appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, arguing as a matter of first impression that his petition should be considered because its late filing was beyond his control.

The Alabama Supreme Court agreed, holding in a 2007 decision that the doctrine of “equitable tolling” is available to excuse late petitions in extraordinary circumstances. The trial court and Court of Criminal Appeals nonetheless refused to consider Mr. Ward’s petition because it did not include an equitable tolling argument.

On Friday, the court held that Mr. Ward should benefit from the rule established in his case by getting the opportunity to prove that the late filing was not his fault and was because he could not find a competent lawyer.

Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. There is no state-wide public defender program in the state and, unlike every other state in the country that uses the death penalty, Alabama does not provide legal assistance to death row inmates to challenge the inadequate representation they received at trial or other aspects of their conviction or sentence in post-conviction proceedings.

In sending Mr. Ward’s case back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing, the court recognized that the consequences of mistakes in capital cases are “terminal” and, as a result, courts must pay “particular attention in a capital case to whether rigid application of a limitations period would be unfair.”

The court wrote that it would violate Mr. Ward’s constitutional rights to deny him the benefit of the equitable tolling doctrine adopted in his own case “solely because he did not include facts or legal principles in support of the doctrine in a petition filed over a year and a half before this Court recognized the doctrine.”