U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Alabama Inmate's Challenge to Death Sentence

On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Billy Joe Magwood, an Alabama defendant convicted of a 1979 murder whose challenge to the state’s death penalty law had been ruled untimely by lower courts. Magwood’s first death sentence was overturned, but he was sentenced to death a second time. When Magwood filed a habeas petition challenging his new death sentence, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Magwood’s challenge to his new death sentence was an unreviewable “second or successive” challenge since he could have brought the same challenge to his first death sentence. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, said “because Magwood’s habeas application challenges a new judgment for the first time, it is not ‘second or successive.’” The Supreme Court decision allows Magwood to challenge his second death sentence as a brand new judgment, even if it raises issues that could have been made against the original sentence. Justices Stevens, Scalia, Breyer, and Sotomayor concurred. Justice Kennedy, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Ginsburg and Alito, dissented.

(K. Russell, “Court rules in favor of capital defendant in Magwood v. Patterson,” SCOTUSblog, June 24, 2010; M. Orndorff, “Alabama death sentence reversed by U.S. Supreme Court,” Birmingham News, June 24, 2010; Magwood v. Patterson, No. 09-158 (June 24, 2010)). Read full text of the opinion here. Read more U.S. Supreme Court decisions here.