High Court Faults Lawyers in Capital Case

This week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the lawyers for Missouri death row inmate Mark Christeson should be replaced with new attorneys.  Christeson was within hours of execution last October when the High Court halted the execution.

The original attorneys, Eric Butts and Philip Horwitz, appointed by the courts to handle Christeson’s federal appeals missed a crucial filing deadline in 2005 by 117 days.  Under a previous Supreme Court ruling, a missed filing deadline can be forgiven only in “serious instances of attorney misconduct.”

Outside lawyers realizing the filing mistake had asked that Butts and Horwitz be replaced on the case, but they refused.  The court’s ruling this week affirmed that Butts and Horwitz had a “conflict of interest” in the case if they argued that the deadline should be waived because of their mistake. The ruling also means that Christeson’s new lawyers can appeal his case in federal court, an avenue that was blocked when the deadline was missed.

Christeson’s is one of at least 80 capital cases nationwide where attorneys missed the one-year deadline for filing federal habeas petitions. Because of the late filings most of these inmates lost access to a critical safeguard in death penalty cases.

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