In a case interpreting a 1996 federal law that has cost scores of condemned inmates their final appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that in the “interests of justice,” a Missouri death row inmate whose attorneys missed a crucial filing deadline are entitled to new lawyers, the Marshall Project reports. The court ruled for Mark Christeson, who in October received a stay of execution hours before he was to die by lethal injection. His is one of at least 80 capital cases where attorneys have missed a one-year deadline established by Congress in 1996 for filing federal habeas corpus petitions.
Because of late filings, most of those inmates lost access to arguably the most critical safeguard in death-penalty cases. Christeson was sentenced to death for murdering a woman, her daughter, and son in 1998. A federal judge appointed two lawyers to represent Christeson but they didn’t meet with him until six weeks after the filing deadline. The high court had ruled that a missed filing deadline can be forgiven only in “serious instances of attorney misconduct.” In this case, two courts refused to give Christenson new legal help, leaving the former lawyers with what the U.S. Supreme Court called an “obvious conflict of interest.”