Jail letter led to major legal test / Representation, state-federal questions raised
Saturday, January 8, 2000
H e was wearing a gray, three-piece suit with a gray tie, white shirt and brown socks and arrived with a coating of mold over his face and hands.
Harris T. Stone had rested in peace for eight months until a guilty conscience in Danville provoked his exhumation. His body was sent to the Medical Examiner's Office in Roanoke, taken out of the metal casket and placed on an autopsy table. It was July 1, 1986.
One of Stone's daughters had found him dead in his bed on Henry Street in Danville the previous November. His blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.41 percent. The funeral director noted a bruise on his chest, but it was presumed that he died from alcohol poisoning.
Then a jail inmate wrote a letter admitting that he killed "that Man who Die on Henry St." Police interviewed Terry Williams, a borderline mentally retarded prisoner. He said he had struck Stone with a garden tool and taken $3 from him.
The autopsy found that Stone, a 50-year-old textile worker, had broken ribs and a punctured lung right where Williams said he'd struck him. Williams, 44, was tried for capital murder in Danville and sentenced to death on Nov. 19, 1986.
And so began an unlikely capital murder case now before the U.S. Supreme Court that could lead to a landmark ruling, altering the landscape surrounding the appeals of death row inmates across the country.
At stake, some experts say, is not just the quality of representation given defendants facing the state's ultimate sanction, but also the traditional safeguard of federal habeas corpus review of state court decisions in death cases.
A habeas corpus appeal is a civil challenge to a criminal verdict or sentence that alleges the defendant's constitutional rights were violated.
Adding to the mix is the interpretation of a law that Congress passed in 1996 in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 was passed to speed up the lengthy appeals process in capital cases.
The impact of the act is still being hashed out in the courts in cases such as Williams'.
Williams was represented at his 1986 trial by two court-appointed attorneys, one a recent law school graduate and the other a sole practitioner.
In 1996, Danville Circuit Court Judge James F. Ingram, who originally sentenced Williams to death, ruled that Williams should get a new sentencing hearing because his lawyers had done an unacceptable job. Ingram said they had not presented to the jury mitigating evidence about Williams' troubled childhood, his mental deficiencies and his family.
However, the Virginia Supreme Court disagreed. It ruled that even if Williams' lawyers had failed to meet constitutionally accepted standards of defense, it did not matter because there was no "reasonable probability" the jury would have acted differently had it heard the evidence.
Williams then filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, where U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris ruled a new sentencing should be held because had the jury heard the mitigating evidence, at least one juror would not have voted for the death penalty.
A unanimous jury vote is needed for the death penalty.
The Virginia attorney general's office appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which overruled Cacheris and said the federal court should defer to the state court's interpretation of Virginia law.
Williams then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case last April, two days before Williams was to be executed. The case was argued before the high court in October.
One of the questions before the justices is whether Cacheris had a right to overturn the Virginia Supreme Court decision in the matter.
An analysis of the case performed for the American Bar Association said that if U.S. Supreme Court justices side with the judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, it will further undermine the right to competent defense lawyers in capital trials.
Also, federal habeas corpus reviews of state courts would "as a practice cease to exist," Timothy W. Floyd, a professor at Texas Tech University Law School, asserted in the analysis.
"There would be very little room for federal courts to correct constitutional errors by state courts in capital cases," Floyd wrote.
Not so, said the attorneys general of 34 other states siding with Virginia.
They argued that the antiterrorism law of 1996 does not effectively eliminate federal habeas corpus review, though it would significantly restrict it.
The Antiterrorism Act, the attorneys general said, is intended to make federal courts give more deference to state courts and the finality of their judgments. It is a deference to which state courts are entitled under a system of federalism in which federal courts have a secondary and limited role in reviewing state criminal proceedings, they argued.
The Virginia attorney general's office agreed with the ruling of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Assistant Attorney General Robert Q. Harris argued in October that the 1996 act assumes that state courts are as good as federal ones and deserve deference.
The appeals court ruled that, under the law, federal courts should have considered the appeal only under very narrow conditions. Those conditions, some say, are so restrictive that it would be virtually impossible for a federal court to review a state ruling.
The traditional standard has been that federal courts could approve a habeas corpus appeal if a state prisoner showed the conviction or sentence was in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
John Blume, a professor at Cornell University Law School, says, "To me the question is . . . is there a need for federal review of death sentences imposed by state courts?"
Blume works with the Habeas Assistance and Training Project, which provides nationwide training and assistance to lawyers involved in federal habeas corpus representation in death penalty cases. He also practices in South Carolina, where he represents death row clients.
"Can we trust the state courts to protect individual rights in capital cases without that backstop of federal court review? And, I think the answer to that is clearly, no," Blume contends.
He said, "These cases are too high-pressure, they're too political, there have been numerous cases of judges who have been targeted to lose their jobs because they've been viewed as soft on crime and soft on death."
Blume said that if you believe the oversight is needed, "then you have to be opposed to the Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act," or at least the interpretation of the act by attorneys general across the country.
The Supreme Court could rule as early as this month on the case.