The Alabama Supreme Court this week stayed the execution of Robert Melson, which had been scheduled for February 18, 2010, because his appeal is still pending at the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Melson was denied all federal review of his constitutional claims because his incompetent lawyer did not properly sign a pleading and filed a notice of appeal in the wrong state court.
The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to conference on Mr. Melson’s case on February 19. It will determine whether to grant his request for review in light of its recent decision to hear a very similar Florida case, Holland v. Florida.
Both Holland and Mr. Melson’s case involve equitable tolling, a legal doctrine that allows a federal court to consider claims that were filed late if the late filing is not the petitioner’s fault and was outside of his control.
The federal district court refused to consider Mr. Melson’s federal constitutional claims, ruling they were untimely because his lawyer in state court filed his postconviction petition without a proper signature and filed a notice of appeal in the wrong court.
Mr. Melson argued that his lawyer’s mistakes were outside his control and should not count against him. Because Alabama is the only state in the country with a significant death row population that refuses to provide counsel for condemned prisoners, Mr. Melson had to rely on a volunteer lawyer from out-of-state. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.
Mr. Melson’s initial request for review in the United States Supreme Court was turned down. The Court then granted review in Holland, in which it will address whether the Eleventh Circuit follows the proper standard in deciding who is entitled to equitable tolling. The Court now is reconsidering whether to hear Mr. Melson’s case or to hold it pending its decision in Holland.
Because the Court will not have made that determination prior to his February 18 execution date, the Alabama Supreme Court on January 26, 2010, granted Mr. Melson’s request for a stay of execution.