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May 26, 2022

Spotlighting the messiness of AEDPA more than a quarter century later

The Supreme Court's ruling earlier this week on the limits of federal habeas review (basic here, commentary here) has folks talking a bit more about the legal mess that is AEDPA.  The folks at The Marshall Project now have this new review under this full headline: "The 1990s Law That Keeps People in Prison on Technicalities: How the Supreme Court expanded the most important law you’ve never heard of."  Here are some excerpts (with links from original):

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court told Arizona prisoner Barry Jones that even though four federal judges agreed he may well be innocent of the 1994 murder that sent him to death row, the high court couldn’t overturn his conviction or stop Arizona from executing him. (Jones had argued he was hindered by poor lawyering at multiple stages of his case.)

In a 6-3 decision on Monday, in a case titled Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, the conservative justices said they couldn’t do anything about it, because of one wonky law passed by Congress in 1996 and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. Misleadingly called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the law was created during the tough-on-crime ‘90s, to keep violent prisoners from getting released on what politicians called technicalities. But now, experts say the law actually keeps innocent people in prison on technicalities — and most of the cases it affects have nothing to do with terrorism or capital punishment.

In these cases, the importance of finality outweighs any claims the prisoners might make, the court’s conservative majority said. “Serial relitigation of final convictions undermines the finality that ‘is essential to both the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law,’” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

While many judges and prosecutors complain about the length of the appeals process, these days there are few defenders of the 1996 law — other than state attorneys general who prosecute appeals in federal courts. “Lots of people are stuck,” said Christina Mathieson, director of the National Habeas Institute, which advocates for prisoners in these cases. “The gates to the federal courts are closed.”

Here are five things you should know about the law known as AEDPA (“ed-puh”):

  1. It was created after the Oklahoma City bombing....

  2. The law makes it harder for many prisoners to win appeals....

  3. The law was intended to speed up death row appeals, but failed....

  4. It doesn’t just affect terrorism and death penalty cases....

  5. It makes federal courts less powerful....

May 26, 2022 at 11:22 AM | Permalink


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