January 01, 2014

News & Announcements

ABA Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Take Case of Florida Death Row Prisoner Barred from Federal Court Review of his Constitutional Claims 2/4/14

The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief today urging the U.S. Supreme Court to accept the case ofPaul A. Howell v. Secretary, Florida Department of Correctionsand reverse a lower court’s ruling that barred federal court review of the constitutionality of Howell’s state conviction and sentence. Howell is currently scheduled to be executed on Feb. 26.

The ABA asserts that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit erred when it denied Howell’s motion to allow reconsideration of the procedural bar, which prevented the review of Howell’s constitutional claims. The procedural bar was the result of his state-appointed, post-conviction attorney’s egregious error in failing to meet a federal court filing deadline.

The ABA urges the Supreme Court to remand with instructions that the unique circumstances of Howell’s case be considered, including the failures of his appointed counsel, the documented deficiencies in Florida’s capital counsel appointment system during the relevant time period and the finality of the death penalty.

“The ABA has concluded that a capital defendant should not be denied a meaningful opportunity for review of the constitutionality of his or her conviction because of a procedural default caused by egregious counsel error or a court’s misapprehension of the law,” the brief reads. “Where human life is at stake the federal courts’ ability to reach and determine the merits of federal constitutional claims should be at the maximum.”

The ABA takes no position on the death penalty itself. However, since 1989, the ABA has maintained policy that sets out principles meant to ensure that those sentenced to death have a full, fair and counseled opportunity to present the merits of their constitutional challenges to a federal court. Over the past two decades, the ABA has conducted studies and assessments documenting deficiencies in Florida’s capital counsel systems.

The ABA's Howell amicus brief is available online here.

Project to Honor Volunteer Attorneys at Event in Washington, DC 9/23/13

On Thursdsay, September 26, 2013, the Project will honor volunteer law firms Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Carrington Coleman, and Lewis Roca Rothgerber with its Exceptional Service Awards. The Project will also present the John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel award to capital defender Denny LeBoeuf, currently Director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project. Visit our event page or read the press release!

Report on the 2012 Midyear Meeting in New Orleans - Board of Governors 3/9/2012

The ABA Board of Governors met and heard from John H. Mathias, Steering Committee Chair of the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project, who reported on the Project’s work. Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2011, the goals of the Project are to raise awareness about the lack of representation available to death row prisoners, to address the urgent need by recruiting competent volunteer attorneys and to offer these volunteers training and assistance. Mathias reported that thousands of volunteer lawyers nationwide have contributed well over a hundred million dollars of billable time to pro bono death penalty cases and tens of millions of dollars in out-of-pocket costs. In addition, he said that through the Project’s work, 52 death row inmate have been exonerated or have had their death sentences commuted.

King & Spalding Wins New Trial for Justin Wolfe in Virginia 7/12/2011

On July 12, 2011, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted habeas relief and vacated the death sentence of Justin Wolfe thanks to a dedicated team of lawyers at King & Spalding. The court ruled that Mr. Wolfe's constitutional rights were violated in several ways, including denial of his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Brady v. Maryland and denial of his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury. Owen Barber, the prosecution’s main witness, ultimately recanted his testimony implicating Mr. Wolfe and admitted that he lied to the jury about Mr. Wolfe’s involvement in order to avoid the death penalty and to satisfy aggressive prosecutors. The court found that the prosecution's use of Barber's false testimony was an additional ground for habeas relief.

Skinner v. Switzer: Access to DNA Evidence  10/13/2010

On October 13, 2010, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether Texas Death Row prisoner Hank Skinner should be allowed to bring a civil rights claim in order to access and test DNA evidence.  Last year the Court held than there is no substantive due process right to test such evidence, but left open the question of whether a prisoner could bring a procedural due process claim.  Mr. Skinner's counsel argued that the process employed by the state of , which prohibits a prisoner from seeking testing of DNA evidence if it was not done at the time of trial, denied him due process of law as guaranteed by the Constitution.

Sidley Austin Secures Release of David Housler  10/4/2010

On October 4, 2010, David Housler was released from prison after nearly 14 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.  Mr. Housler was convicted of killing four people in in 1997, based on a false confession extracted through prosecutorial misconduct.  A team at Sidley Austin LLP led by partner Paul Hemmersbaugh successfully demonstrated the flaws and mistakes in the prosecution’s case.  Congratulations to the Sidley Austin team!

Covington & Burling Wins New Trial for Larry Reynold Smith  10/1/2010

On October 1, 2010, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for Death Row prisoner Larry Reynold Smith on the basis of trial counsel's ineffectiveness, including their failure to investigate and present a thorough defense.  The failure to provide competent counsel to capital defendants and Death Row prisoners on appeal is a defining feature of many death penalty cases in .  We congratulate the team at Covington & Burling, including Keith Teel and former associates Jim Hanlon and John Fuson, for their dedication to Mr. Smith and his case!