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30 Years After Murder, Is His Appeal Too Late?
Tue Nov 17, 2009 1:25pm

30 Years After Murder, Is His Appeal Too Late?

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether it is
too late for an Alabama man to argue that the murder that sent him to
death row was not a capital crime when he committed it.

The inmate, Billy Joe Magwood, shot and killed Sheriff Neil Grantham
in 1979 in front of the Coffee County jail. At the time, Alabama law
imposed two requirements before the state’s judges could sentence
defendants to death: the commission of one of 14 listed offenses and
the existence of certain “aggravating circumstances.”

The murder of a peace officer like a sheriff was a listed offense.
But Mr. Magwood’s crime did not satisfy the second requirement. The
question before the Supreme Court is whether he took too long to
raise the argument that he could not have lawfully been sentenced to

Although Mr. Magwood’s lawyers challenged his sentence on other
grounds over the years, it was not until 1997 that they raised the
question of whether his was a capital crime under Alabama law. In the
meantime, a federal judge, acting on other grounds, ordered Mr.
Magwood resentenced in 1985. He was again sentenced to death the next

A 1996 federal law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty
Act, imposes strict limits on successive federal habeas corpus
petitions. Under the law, a petition challenging Mr. Magwood’s
original death sentence might well be barred, given his earlier
challenges. But Mr. Magwood argues that he is challenging his 1986
resentencing for the first time.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals
for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled in January that since Mr.
Magwood could have challenged his original sentence on the grounds he
now asserts, he cannot raise them now.

In urging the Supreme Court not to hear the case, Magwood v.
Culliver, No. 09-158, Attorney General Troy King of Alabama said Mr.
Magwood’s argument “unquestionably could have been, but was not,
raised during his first round of litigation 20-plus years earlier.”

There appears to be little dispute that a literal reading of the law
in effect at the time of the murder did not allow Mr. Magwood to be
sentenced to death.

In a 1981 decision in another case, the Alabama Supreme Court
acknowledged that “a literal and technical reading of the statute”
would forbid the death penalty in circumstances like Mr. Magwood’s.
But the court called that result “completely illogical” and “an
anomaly in Alabama’s death penalty statute” that could not have been
intended by the State Legislature.

The parties in Mr. Magwood’s case disagree about the significance and
retroactive applicability of that decision, which was issued two
years after his crime.

Mr. Magwood also asked the United States Supreme Court to decide
whether his trial lawyers — one a childhood friend of Sheriff
Grantham — had been ineffective in failing to raise the argument that
their client was ineligible for the death penalty. The Supreme Court
declined to hear that part of the appeal, confining itself to the
question of whether Mr. Magwood’s new lawyers had raised the point
too late.

  • Magwood v. Culliver, No. 0712208Britta, Sun Jan 25 9:17am
    CRIMINAL LAW & PROCEDURE Magwood v. Culliver, No. 0712208 Partial denial of petitioner-death row inmate's habeas corpus petition is affirmed in part and reversed in part where: 1) petitioner's... more
    • 30 Years After Murder, Is His Appeal Too Late? — Britta, Tue Nov 17 1:25pm
      • The ScotusWiki file Britta, Tue Nov 17 1:26pm
        The ScotusWiki file for Magwood v. Culliver is at:
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