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Ex-Judges to SCOTUS: Stop Execution of Mo. Man Abandoned by Counsel

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By William Peacock, Esq. on October 28, 2014 4:48 PM

It's hard for most people to feel sorry for Mark Christeson. According to The Associated Press, he teamed up with his cousin to rape a mother of two, then, when one of the kids recognized him, Christeson and his cousin murdered the whole family before taking off with their car and electronics.

Of course, there's often more to the story -- murderers don't often emerge from the womb without a conscience. Often, there's mental illness, or some sort of childhood tragedy, that makes you wonder if this person really deserves the death penalty.

Christeson never got the chance to tell that story because his attorneys, who still represent him and refuse to admit fault, missed the habeas deadline. He's scheduled for execution by the State of Missouri at midnight tonight, unless the U.S. Supreme Court steps in and grants relief.

15 Former Federal and State Judges Back Christeson

The list of judges -- including federal district court and appellate judges, state supreme court judges, a law dean, and more -- that have signed on to an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to halt Christeson's execution is almost as impressive as the strength of their arguments.

It all started in 2004. Christeson was appointed two attorneys for his federal habeas appeal. The filing deadline was in April 2005. They first met with him a month after that deadline, then filed his petition 117 days late. Since then, they've doubled down, refusing to concede malpractice and insisting on appeal that the filing was timely. They've also refused to drop the case and are still, to this day, representing him on appeal.

The ex-judges' brief argues that the counselors' actions (or lack thereof) amount to abandonment of their client and that their continued representation of the client is a conflict of interest.

Even worse: "They may have concealed the scope of their error and its significance from appellant himself and it is also possible that appellant's mental impairments would have made it difficult for him to comprehend those points even if they had been explained."

When pro bono counsel was lined up earlier this year, the parties moved to substitute counsel in the district court. After "judicial ping-pong" between that district court and the Supreme Court, the lower court finally addressed the motion for substitution of counsel without really addressing the conflict of interest issue -- it merely punted the papers due to the long delay, a delay caused by the conflict itself.

2 Pro Bono Lawyers Plead With SCOTUS

The two pro bono lawyers, who are now pushing to represent Christeson, were seemingly located by accident. The inmate's original attorneys brought in two outside lawyers to help with general details on the case earlier this year. But when the two new attorneys arrived, they found a case of startling neglect and abandonment.

They noticed the missed deadline, and that there "was no sign of any legal activity indicating that anything was going on up to and beyond the deadline," Joseph Perkovich told The Guardian.

Perkovich and co-counsel Jennifer Merrigan asked the original bumbling duo to hand over the case files, but they refused. In fact, with hours to go, they still refuse to share their files.

Perkovich and Merrigan are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to halt Christeson's execution on the basis of the conflict with appointed counsel, as well as equitable tolling of the time limit for a habeas petition. They punctuate their petition by noting: "His brutal story of victimization and mental illness has never been meaningfully presented to any court and it would have made strong grounds to mitigate his death sentence."

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