WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday gave a second chance to a Florida death row inmate whose lawyer had caused him to miss strict appellate deadlines.
The court's 7-2 ruling means that convicted cop killer Albert Holland will have another opportunity to make his case. The decision opens the door for other inmates who can show they've missed deadlines because of their lawyers' "egregious" mistakes.
"In this case, the (lawyer's) failure seriously prejudiced a client who thereby lost what was likely his single opportunity for federal habeas (corpus) review of the lawfulness of his imprisonment and of his death sentence," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote.
Breyer noted that Holland's original appeals attorney, Bradley Collins, erred in multiple ways. The attorney failed to file a federal petition on time. He apparently failed to research when deadlines occurred, and he failed to communicate with Holland over the course of several years.
"These failures violated fundamental canons of professional responsibility," Breyer wrote.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that strict deadlines should be respected.
The decision is a blow to Texas, Idaho, Kentucky, Washington and about 20 other states that had joined Florida in arguing against giving inmates more freedom to miss deadlines in challenging their incarceration.
Holland originally was sentenced to death in 1991 for the first-degree murder of Pompano Beach police Officer Scott Winters. Police say Holland shot Winters with the officer's own .45-caliber pistol, after beating and attempting to rape a woman.
Holland's original trial attorneys argued that he was mentally ill, noting that he'd spent four years in a Washington, D.C., psychiatric hospital. He was so disruptive in his first trial that he was moved to a separate room.
An appellate court later overturned the conviction because of problems with a psychiatrist's testimony.
Retried, Holland was convicted again and sentenced to death in 1997 for first-degree murder, armed robbery, attempt to commit sexual battery and attempted murder.
The high court's decision Monday creates a little more flexibility for prisoners and judges alike. Prompted by complaints about highly litigious inmates, Congress in 1996 tightened various restrictions on prisoner lawsuits. Prisoners now must file their habeas corpus petitions within one year of their conviction and the exhaustion of all state appeals.
A habeas corpus petition challenges the constitutional legality of an inmate's imprisonment.
"We know that the system is flooded with habeas petitions," Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar told the court during oral argument.
Under the 1996 law, the one-year habeas clock can start and stop depending on various legal developments. The Supreme Court's ruling Monday further modifies this, to allow what's called "equitable tolling." This means that standard deadlines can be waived when prisoners have been diligent about pursuing their rights but have been impeded by their lawyers' "extraordinary" actions.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in reviewing Holland's case, determined that filing deadlines couldn't be waived even if the attorney was "grossly negligent," unless the attorney also was shown to have exhibited bad faith, dishonesty, mental illness or the like.
"In our view, the court of appeals' standard is too rigid," Breyer said, adding that in the Holland case, "we are not considering a garden variety claim of attorney negligence."
Holland's case now will return to the 11th Circuit, where appellate judges will review the specifics to determine whether the death row inmate's claims deserve further review.
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