Eleventh Circuit Rule Barring Federal Review of Death Penalty Case Filed After Deadline Reversed by U.S. Supreme Court


On June 14, 2010, the United States Supreme Court held that a federal appeal filed after a deadline nonetheless can be reviewed on the merits if the late filing was caused by extraordinary circumstances outside a prisoner’s control. The Court ruled that Florida death row prisoner Albert Holland must be given the chance to show that his lawyer’s negligent conduct caused him to miss the deadline for filing a challenge his death sentence.

Mr. Holland was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida in 1997, shortly after a new federal law created, for the first time in American history, a deadline for prisoners to file a petition for habeas corpus review in federal court.

Mr. Holland wrote his court-appointed lawyer many letters emphasizing the importance of filing a federal habeas corpus petition on time, told counsel about the legal rules governing when the petition needed to be filed, and – when his lawyer did not communicate with him for years – repeatedly asked the court and the state bar to remove him from the case. Despite Mr. Holland’s pleas, his lawyer missed the deadline for filing a petition in federal court.

As soon as he found out that his lawyer failed to file his federal appeal on time, Mr. Holland filed his own petition, but the federal district court ruled it was too late and found Mr. Holland did not do enough to ensure his appeal was timely filed. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the lawyer’s misconduct was not severe enough to excuse the late filing because Mr. Holland did not show his lawyer’s misconduct was due to bad faith, dishonesty, divided loyalty, or mental impairment.

Finding the Eleventh Circuit too eager to “close courthouse doors” on prisoners diligently seeking federal review who file late due to extraordinary circumstances outside their control, the United States Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Eleventh Circuit’s rule “fails to recognize that, at least sometimes, an attorney’s unprofessional conduct can be so egregious” as to excuse an untimely filing.

The Court concluded that Mr. Holland diligently pursued his rights and must now have the chance to prove that his lawyer’s gross misconduct is an “extraordinary circumstance” that excuses his late petition.

In a related case, the Supreme Court also remanded Alabama death row inmate Robert Melson’s case and ordered that he be given a chance to prove that gross negligence and misconduct by his attorneys entitles him to federal review of his untimely habeas corpus petition.