Former Judges, Criminal Defense Associations File Briefs Supporting Missouri Inmate Who Was Denied Funding for Counsel

A group of 16 former state and federal judges and three of the nation’s preeminent criminal defense organizations have filed briefs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in support of Missouri death row inmate Mark Christeson’s efforts to be afforded a meaningful opportunity to investigate and present his claims to the federal courts. Christeson was nearly executed in 2014 without ever having any federal court hear his case, after the lawyers appointed to represent him in his federal proceedings failed to meet with him until six weeks after his filing deadline had passed. After the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the district court to appoint new lawyers, a Kansas City-based court directed them to submit a proposed budget for the case. Then, without explanation, it refused to fund 94% of their requested budget, limiting the defense to $10,000 for the entire capital case. The amicus briefs urge the Eighth Circuit to overturn the funding decision, arguing that it effectively deprives Christeson of his right to counsel. The former judges brief, organized by Constitution Project, calls the district court’s ruling “nakedly partisan,” reading “less like a judicial opinion and more like a prosecutor’s brief.” They say ““When attorneys lack adequate funds to investigate and prepare submissions in a capital habeas case, the adversarial process cannot perform its essential function of revealing the truth.” In particular, they say the funding ruling prevented counsel from developing and presenting mental health evidence that Christeson’s severe cognitive impairment left him unable to assert his own rights after his previous counsel had abandoned him. The second brief, filed by the National Association for Public Defense, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, joined by the MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, argued that, “It is not possible to maintain the integrity and fairness of capital punishment, and habeas proceedings generally, if district court judges continue to interfere with representation in this manner with no check on their abuse of discretion.” Mae Quinn, the Director of the MacArthur center, said the denial of resources “is sadly consistent with the culture and ongoing challenges faced by the Missouri criminal and juvenile defense bar.” Missouri ranks 49th in the nation in funding indigent defense.

Christeson’s original federal court lawyers ultimately filed his habeas petition 117 days late, leading the district court to dismiss it as untimely. New lawyers attempted to enter their appearance in the case, arguing that Christeson’s prior lawyers had abandoned him, and he should be afforded an opportunity to restore his federal rights. Accusing new counsel of “abusive” delays, the district court refused their request. While Christeson’s appeal was pending, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a death warrant. The U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution and, in 2015, ordered the district court to provide new attorneys to pursue federal review of his case, leading to the lower court’s funding order.

(“Former Judges Tell 8th Circuit Effective Counsel for Death Row Inmate Requires Funding,” The Constitution Project, August 23, 2016; Press Release, “MACARTHUR JUSTICE CENTER, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR PUBLIC DEFENSE, AND OTHER NATIONAL BAR ASSOCIATIONS URGE AN END TO CONSTRUCTIVE DENIAL OF COUNSEL IN CAPITAL CASES,” Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center - St. Louis, August 22, 2016.) Read the brief by the MacArthur Justice Center, the National Association for Public Defense, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Read the judges’ brief. Read a brief on the case from the American Bar Association. See Representation.