EJI Challenges Eleventh Circuit Denial of Meritorious Claim Because Unrepresented Inmate Did Not Use Correct Language in Brief


On March 17, 2008, EJI asked the United States Supreme Court to review the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision denying relief to Eli Crawford, an Alabama inmate serving a life sentence for attempted murder. At his Birmingham trial, Mr. Crawford’s court-appointed trial lawyer did not object when the judge forced Mr. Crawford to wear jail-issued clothing instead of the clothes his family brought for him, even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that a defendant’s right to be presumed innocent is violated when he is forced to attend trial in a jail uniform.

Alabama law required Mr. Crawford to raise the claim about his trial lawyer’s ineffectiveness in a state postconviction petition. Alabama does not provide lawyers to inmates in postconviction, so Mr. Crawford had to raise the claim by himself. The State of Alabama responded that it was appropriate for Mr. Crawford, an African American who worked in computer systems installation, to wear ill-fitting prison clothing at trial because “everyone knows that ‘baggy’ is the preferred pants style of your modern-day, urban gangster.”

The state court denied Mr. Crawford’s claim. He went on to federal court, where his repeat requests for legal help were denied. After the federal district court denied his claim, the Eleventh Circuit found that Mr. Crawford had made a substantial showing that his rights were violated and agreed to hear his appeal. The Eleventh Circuit then relied on an obscure decision that had never before been used to deny review of a potentially meritorious claim to reject Mr. Crawford’s brief because he did not use the technically correct language to describe how trial counsel’s failure to object harmed him.

EJI filed a petition for certiorari review in the Supreme Court to challenge the Eleventh Circuit’s application of a formalistic pleading requirement to bar review of a unrepresented petitioner’s claim. The case underscores the importance of treating pro se petitioners fairly and taking seriously their claims of constitutional error. According to a recent study, 90% of state prisoners who seek review in federal court are forced to navigate the extemely complex field of federal habeas corpus law without a lawyer.