Supreme Court Delivers Rare Victory to Death Penalty Defendants

Tony Mauro


The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sympathized with a Florida death row inmate whose lawyer missed a deadline for his habeas appeal and failed to communicate with him for years despite numerous written pleas for help.

By a 7-2 vote in Holland v. Florida, the Court said that the lawyer's misconduct may entitle convicted murderer Albert Holland to "equitable tolling," or a delay in what otherwise would have been a one-year statute of limitation for filing the appeal under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

The lawyer's failures, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer for the majority, "seriously prejudiced a client who thereby lost what was likely his single opportunity for habeas review."

The Court sent the case back to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to determine if in fact the conduct of the lawyer, Bradley Collins of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was egregious enough to pause the deadline for Holland's appeal. Collins did not return phone calls for comment.

The decision represented a rare procedural victory for defendants under the AEDPA that won applause from those concerned about inadequate legal representation for death row inmates on appeal.

"The Court is starting to understand there are some very bad lawyers out there that the client should not pay the penalty for," said Virginia Sloan, president of the nonpartisan Constitution Project. "The fact that they have found an exception to AEDPA is a great thing." Miami Beach lawyer Todd Scher of the Law Office of Todd G. Scher, who argued Holland's case before the high court, said Monday he was "very pleased the Court recognized that equitable tolling is available." Scher said the case is not over, and "there is still a high burden" for showing that tolling is warranted. And only then can he present his habeas argument. Scher said he was unable to reach his client in prison on Monday, but "I am quite sure he'll be very happy."

Holland, accused of killing a Pompano Beach police officer, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997.

After the U.S. Supreme Court first denied review in October 2001, the one-year clock began to run. In November of that year, Florida appointed Collins to represent Holland for his appeals. The following September, Collins filed for state post-conviction relief, which stopped the clock with only 12 days left. After that, Breyer said, relations between lawyer and client "began to break down." Without Holland even being aware it was happening, the Florida Supreme Court considered his case in February 2005 and in November denied relief. Collins did not reply to numerous letters from Holland. The federal clock resumed, and soon Holland was out of time for the federal habeas review. Collins never filed an appeal.

Holland filed on his own, blaming the missed deadline on his lawyer, but both the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida and the 11th Circuit ruled that the lawyer's behavior did not amount to a circumstance warranting tolling of the statute of limitations.

Breyer said that was too narrow a view of the AEDPA, which he said, "did not seek to end every possible delay at all costs." Breyer said the Court should be cautious before interpreting the AEDPA's silence on an issue as "indicating a strong congressional intent to close courthouse doors that a strong equitable claim would ordinarily keep open."

In dissent, however, Justice Antonin Scalia said the law "leaves no room for equitable exceptions" to the one-year deadline. Scalia also said that, because a defendant has no right to counsel on appeal, "the rule holding him responsible for his attorney's acts applies with full force." Thus, even when the missed deadline was caused by a lawyer's error, "the petitioner is out of luck," Scalia said. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Scalia's dissent.

John Holdridge, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project, said the decision is "a victory for basic fairness." For the first time, Holdridge said, death row inmates "will now have an opportunity to show that they should be allowed to file a petition if the deadline has passed because of attorney misconduct or gross negligence."

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