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November 4, 2009

DC Sniper makes (final?) appeal to SCOTUS before scheduled execution

As detailed in this Washington Post article and this SCOTUSblog post, lawyers for "sniper John Allen Muhammad, mastermind of the terrifying 2002 Washington area shooting spree, asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to halt their client's execution, saying he was paranoid and delusional during his trial."  Here is how SCOTUSblog describes the legal particulars:

The new petition asked the Supreme Court to review two issues.  Paraphrased, they are: whether the Fourth Circuit was wrong in the standard it used to analyze the performance of his lawyers on the incompetency issue, and whether Congress has set a one-year filing period for the first habeas plea and thus that period cannot be shortened by federal judges.

The first question is a mixture of an inquiry into counsel’s performance, and a question of the scope of prejudice that may result from a flawed performance regarding competency.  Muhammad’s petition contends that, in judging whether Muhammad’s case was harmed when his lawyers failed to bring forth evidence of his incompetence, when the judge was considering whether to let Muhammad act as his own lawyer, the test is whether there was a reasonable chance the accused would have been found incompetent to waive his rights.  The Fourth Circuit, it adds, erred in focusing only on whether there was a reasonable prospect that the trial would have ended differently if Muhammad had not been his own lawyer (for two days of the trial)....

The second issue focuses on what the petition says is a truly novel practice, under which federal District Courts in Virginia routinely deny first-time habeas applicants a full year to prepare their habeas pleas.  Thus, the question raised is whether the one-year time provision in federal habeas law (enacted as part of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act) bars a federal judge from ordering an earlier filing.  Federal judges ordered Muhammad to proceed with plenty of time left in the one-year span, the petition says.

My gut instinct is that it is unlikely that the Justices will take up this high-profile capital case.  But, especially in death penalty settings, unexpected factors can sometimes lead to unexpected results. 

November 4, 2009 at 08:19 AM | Permalink


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I have a hard time believing the AEDPA practice outlined here would survive review. Especially in light of how SCOTUS ruled that the 1 year limitation held even when a judge misstated the deadline.

However I also have a hard time believing that there was anything an attorney could have done with this case to produce a different outcome on the facts.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Nov 4, 2009 9:40:33 AM

SH, I think that Muhammad would have to show prejudice in order to prevail on his "you made me file early" in order to get a ruling tossing the judgment.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 4, 2009 10:07:59 AM

The SC is pretty stupid. This is stupid, as in, they need to be placed in special ed classes, not knowing anything about living. The execution is not for the benefit of the condemned. He does not need to have the ability to enjoy it. It is to show others murder is wrong. It addresses future behavior of others. It also incapacitates the condemned. Someone paranoid and insane needs to be executed as quickly as possible being more dangerous than a contract killer. If the execution of the mentally ill is not deserved, then the rewards of superior brain function are not deserved. The pitcher throwing a baseball at 90 mph. A law prof who knows a lot. A rock star who pens delightful melodies. None would deserve their wealth or fame.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 4, 2009 2:23:39 PM

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