Supreme Court Decides One Capital Case and Agrees to Hear Another

On November 16, the United States Supreme Court accepted for review and handed down a per curiam decision in Wong v. Belmontes (No. 08-1263). The Court reinstated Fernando Belmontes’ death sentence and overturned the decision of the Ninth Circuit granting relief because of ineffectiveness of counsel. Belmontes was sentenced to death for murdering a woman during a robbery in 1981 in California. The appeals court ruled in 2008 that Belmontes’ lawyer had represented him incompetently by neglecting to introduce evidence of family strife and depression that would have likely led to a different sentence. The Supreme Court assumed that the attorney should have presented more evidence but concluded it would not have made any difference in sentencing. Justice Stevens issued a concurring opinion stating that he believed the Supreme Court had erred in a previous consideration of this same case.

On the same day, the Court agreed to hear Magwood v. Culliver (No. 09-158). Billy Joe Magwood received a death sentence for killing a sheriff in 1979 in Alabama. At the time, Alabama law required two conditions before the state could sentence a defendant to death, only one of which was satisfied by Magwood’s crime. Magwood’s death sentence was overturned on other grounds in 1985, and he was resentenced to death the next year. However, it was not until 1997 that Magwood’s lawyers challenged whether his crime was death-eligible under Alabama law. Alabama claims Magwood took too long to raise this argument and his appeal is barred by the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which imposes strict limits on successive federal habeas corpus petitions. The Eleventh Circuit agreed. Magwood claims that he is bringing his claim under his new death sentence and therefore is not barred by AEDPA.

The issue accepted by the Court in Magwood is: When a person is resentenced after having obtained federal habeas relief from an earlier sentence, is a claim in a federal habeas petition challenging that new sentencing judgment a “second or successive” claim under 28 U.S.C. § 2244(b) if the petitioner could have challenged his previous sentence on the same constitutional grounds? See the opinion of the court below (11th Cir.).

(See B. Egelko, “Central Valley killer back in line for death,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 16, 2009; A. Liptak, “30 Years After Murder, Is His Appeal Too Late?,” New York Times, November, 16, 2009). See also U.S. Supreme Court, Arbitrariness, and Representation.