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Denied: Procedural Vigilance Matters in Post-Conviction Relief

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 14, 2011 3:33 PM

In October, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Maples v. Thomas, an Alabama death penalty appeal. In that case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals previously held that a procedural default in an inmate’s death penalty appeal cannot be excused. The Supreme Court will soon let us know if they agree.

Why are we bringing up Maples v. Thomas without new information from The Nine on the issue? Because today we’re talking about another procedural snafu in another death penalty case from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Jason Dirk Walton committed a triple execution-style murder in 1982 and received three death sentences.

In 1990, Walton filed his first applications for state collateral review. On June 30, 2003, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Walton's motion for post-conviction relief and denied his first petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Meanwhile, one week earlier, on June 23, 2003, Walton had filed a second state habeas petition. On October 3, 2003, the Florida Supreme Court denied that second petition as successive, but did not address whether the second petition was timely.

On September 30, 2004, Walton filed his federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court held that, because Walton's second state petition was untimely, Walton's second state petition was not properly filed so as to toll the federal limitation period. The district court dismissed Walton's federal habeas petition as untimely.

Walton's conviction became final before the effective date of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, (AEDPA), so Walton had one year from the conviction date to file his federal petition. The one-year limitation period is tolled as long as "properly filed" applications for state post-conviction or other collateral review are pending.

The district court reasoned that Walton had properly filed applications pending until the Florida Supreme Court issued its mandate that affirmed the denial of his motion for post-conviction relief and denied his first petition for a writ of habeas corpus on June 30, 2003. Based on that reasoning, the limitation period expired on June 29, 2004. Because Walton did not file his federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus until September 30, 2004, the district court dismissed the petition as untimely.

Walton argued that his second state habeas petition, filed on June 23, 2003, tolled the limitation period until its denial on October 3, 2003. The district court rejected his argument, reasoning that Walton's second state habeas petition was not properly filed under Florida law, which requires all habeas petitions in death penalty cases to "be filed simultaneously" with the initial brief in the appeal of the denial of a motion for post-conviction relief.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and affirmed Walton's habeas petition dismissal.

Eleventh Circuit judges are sticklers for procedure, even in death penalty appeals. If you represent a death penalty inmate in post-conviction relief, be vigilant on procedural issues; the Eleventh Circuit will not waiver based on a "this-man's-life-hangs-in-the-balance" plea to emotion.

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