Habeas Corpus

  • October 24, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Emily Olson-Gault, director, American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project and Misty C. Thomas, director, American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project

    *Affiliations are listed for identification purposes only, as the opinions expressed in this post are the authors’ personal views.

    In one week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Texas death row prisoner Carlos Ayestas to decide whether his federal appeals attorneys should be afforded basic resources to investigate their client’s background and mental health. This should seem obvious, as we know that these investigations are often the only way to uncover new evidence of wrongful convictions or other constitutional violations. However, the courts below have denied Mr. Ayestas investigative resources critical to developing his defense because he could not prove in advance the very claims he sought to investigate. If the lower court’s decision sounds confusing and circular, that’s because it is. It is also an outlier practice that effectively denies poor people access to justice in the most serious and complex cases.

  • July 5, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law and Lee Kovarsky, Professor of Law University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Professors Garrett and Kovarsky co-author a habeas corpus casebook, Federal Habeas Corpus: Executive Detention and Post-conviction Litigation, published by Foundation Press. 

    This week, in Davila v. Davis, the Supreme Court blocked a promising avenue for criminal defendants to enforce their rights to counsel. After Davila, when a state habeas lawyer forfeits an argument that an inmate was deprived of the constitutional right to appellate counsel, the inmate is out of luck. The holding came in a death penalty case, but the rule applies against noncapital defendants too.

    The fact pattern was familiar: trial counsel objected to an unlawful jury instruction, but appellate and state habeas lawyers ignored the claim. And the instructional error was really important, because it likely allowed Davila to be convicted of capital murder based on insufficient evidence of intent. Texas permits the death penalty to be imposed for multiple intentional killings, and has a transferred intent rule providing that, in situations where someone trying to murder one person kills another, the killing is still “intentional.” Erick Davila killed two people, but the evidence strongly suggested that he had tried to kill only one person—who was not a victim. Davila means that, had the scenario involved trial counsel’s failure to challenge the instruction rather than appellate counsel’s failure to appeal the issue, the claim could be revived in federal court. But because appellate counsel made the mistake, it cannot.

    What a mess.

  • April 26, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Brian W. Stull, Senior Staff Attorney, Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union

    Monday’s argument in Davila v. Davis involved a technical question of habeas corpus procedure: can a prisoner’s failure to raise the ineffectiveness of his direct appellate counsel in a collateral state post-conviction proceeding be excused by the ineffectiveness of the post-conviction lawyer? But the answer may turn on the more familiar judicial concern over opening floodgates. Some of the justices appeared concerned that the extension of Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler Davila proposed would do just that. To ground that discussion in facts, Justice Breyer asked for empirical data. While the advocates did not have ready answers at the lectern, answers were relatively easy to find at the computer.

    Justice Breyer asked petitioner Davila’s attorney to “what extent has the Martinez claim proved a burden on Federal court? Is there any empirical information?” Counsel did not have a ready answer. Justice Breyer later asked the same of the Solicitor General of Texas, who repeated the figure of 3,800 cases, which Texas had previously cited in its Respondent’s Brief.

    It is easy to reproduce this figure by searching on Westlaw for those district court decisions citing either Martinez or Trevino. Sure enough, the number is nearly exact (3,837). But spot checking of the 3,800 leads to at least three pertinent observations. First, not all cases citing one of the two decisions involved a claim under Martinez/Trevino. A court may cite Martinez or Trevino for a proposition stated within, without deciding a claim based on the decisions.

  • February 9, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law

    Someone please give the new administration and its lawyers a pile of pocket constitutions. With a straight face, apparently, government lawyers argued earlier this week that the Trump executive order on immigration and refugees could not even be reviewed in the courts. But because the executive order violates the constitution so blatantly, yesterday the Ninth Circuit delivered a stinging blow to the administration. 

    In their unanimous opinion, the Ninth Circuit highlighted how totally unsupported the government position was---there was simply “no precedent” that such an order would be “unreviewable” by the courts. The very notion runs “contrary to the fundamental structure of our democracy.”  In other words, the administration lost big.

    It was surprising that in its papers, the government cited Boumediene v. Bush, the 2008 decision holding that habeas corpus offers rights to Guantanamo Bay detainees. This was another bumbling move. The Boumediene decision was front and center in the Ninth Circuit's decision.

    Boumediene was the ruling that once and for all undid President George W. Bush’s effort to make “unreviewable” the cases of the people detailed at Guantanamo Bay. In Boumediene, the Supreme Court emphasized: "Where a person is detained by executive order, rather than, say, after being tried and convicted in a court,” the need for judicial review “is most pressing."  

  • March 25, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of law at the University of San Francisco and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project and author of Our Nation Unhinged, the Human Consequences of the War on Terror

    Damien Corsetti was an interrogator at the Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan in 2002, where, according to The New York Times, he was known as the “King of Torture.”  In 2006, he was prosecuted for alleged abusive treatment he committed while an interrogator, but was acquitted.  Nevertheless, he told our Witness to Guantanamo project that he had mistreated his prisoners.

    When he began working in summer 2002, Corsetti believed in what he was doing.  He thought they were all guilty and, like most Americans, he was angry.  He explained how he had obtained information regarding several alleged plots through his interrogations in time for the U.S. to intervene and prevent the incidents from occurring.  He saved American lives.

    In the months that followed, however, he and other interrogators began to have doubts about their work. They asked a Judge Advocate General, or JAG lawyer, for advice.  The JAG attorney assured them that their actions were legal because the Bush administration had decided not to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. After hearing the JAG assessment, Corsetti felt obligated to follow orders.

    Corsetti told us how he would hood prisoners, tighten the cord at the neck, and then pour water over the hood.  The process wasn’t quite the same as “waterboarding,” but the detainees did experience the sensation of drowning or suffocating.

    He forced prisoners into extremely uncomfortable and awkward “stress positions” for hours.  He noted how the military later renamed the term “stress positions” to “safety positions,” explaining that the safety positions were for the safety of the interrogators and the military personnel on the base, not the detainees.