Sunday, March 24, 2013

Tennessee Supreme Court Excuses Prisoner's Failure to Meet Post-Conviction Deadline

By Stevie Phillips

In 2003, prisoner Artis Whitehead tried to rob BB King's Blues Club on Beale Street in downtown Memphis.  He was convicted of a variety of offenses surrounding the incident.  The TN appellate courts affirmed his convictions, and the US Supreme Court declined to hear his case.  Up to that point, he had an attorney.

Afterwards and without a lawyer, Mr. Whitehead filed a petition for post-conviction relief in the trial court.  That court dismissed the petition because it was filed late.  The Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case for a hearing, but the trial court again declined to excuse Mr. Whitehead's late filing.  This time on appeal, the TN Supreme Court issued a divided opinion.

Both the majority and dissent analyzed this case under Holland v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2549 (2010) and Maples v. Thomas, 132 S. Ct. 912 (2012), two US Supreme Court cases holding, essentially, that a prisoner's late filing should be excused if 1) he was diligently pursing his rights and some extraordinary circumstance prevented him from filing his petition on time and 2) the prisoner’s attorney abandoned the prisoner or acted against the prisoner’s interests.

J. Koch, writing for the majority, held that Mr. Whitehead's attorney effectively abandoned him, which created an exceptional circumstance that prevented him from filing his petition on time. Specifically, Mr. Whitehead's lawyer delayed in informing him that the US Supreme Court had declined to hear his case and in forwarding his case files and also gave Mr. Whitehead an incorrect filing deadline.

J. Holder authored a dissent in which she distinguished these facts from Holland and Maples:
"The petitioners in Holland and Maples were not only the victims of attorney mistakes and communication failures, but each petitioner also erroneously believed his attorney was pursuing his legal matter on his behalf."  In J. Holder's view, the evidence did not preponderate against the trial court's finding that "Mr. Whitehead never operated under the misconception that the pursuit of post-conviction relief was not his responsibility or that his former appellate attorney was pursuing his post-conviction claim." 

Read J. Koch's majority opinion and J. Holder's dissent.

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