In a case emblematic of a law that has cost scores of condemned inmates their final appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that in the "interests of justice," a Missouri death row inmate whose attorneys missed a crucial filing deadline should be entitled to new lawyers.
The ruling marks the latest development in the case of Mark Christeson, who in October received a stay of execution mere hours before he was to die by lethal injection.
Christeson’s 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, according to an investigation published by The Marshall Project and The Washington Post in November. Because of the late filings, most of those inmates lost access to what is arguably the country’s most critical safeguard in death-penalty cases.
Christeson was sentenced to death for three murders committed in south-central Missouri in 1998. He was convicted of raping 36-year-old Susan Brouk, then cutting her throat. He was also convicted of killing Brouk’s 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son.
After the Missouri Supreme Court denied Christeson’s first two appeals, a U.S. District Court judge in 2004 appointed two St. Louis-area attorneys, Eric Butts and Philip Horwitz, to represent Christeson in preparing his final appeal in federal court. Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (or AEDPA), which was signed by President Clinton to streamline capital appeals, Christeson’s filing deadline was April 10, 2005.
But Butts and Horwitz didn’t meet with Christeson until more than six weeks after the deadline. When they filed the petition, it was 117 days late. The two attorneys, who did not respond to interview requests, attributed their miscalculation to a lack of clarity in court rulings in how to determine the deadline, according to court records.