By ADAM LIPTAK 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 death.
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 year.
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.
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DISCLOSURE: Howe & Russell and Akin Gump represented the petitioner in this case. Federal habeas law generally allows prisoners to bring a single habeas petition; “second and successive” petitions... more
A federal appeals court has overturned the death sentence given to an Alabama death row inmate for the 1979 shooting of a county sheriff in Alabama. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday... more
This I find wrong in appeal cases they have to make all grounds for appeal in the first twelve months after conviction. Most defendants are uneducated and don't have access to good legal advice, yet... more
You are so right! It embarrasses us as being Americans with these injustices and the death penalty. You never know for sure the person is guilty. That is why they need to ABOLISH the Death Penalty... more
Appeal courts are not the safeguard people think they are, I find most appeals never see the light of day unless the innocence group (or similar groups) are backing the claims or if public opinion is ... more
I have to agree Darlie Routiers case is full of holes. What the prosecutor did was attack Darlie has a mother I think that's what ultimately convicted Darlie...lies and more lies... Let's hope truth... more