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Friday, January 23, 2015

Yale Ethics Bureau Cited by Supreme Court in Case of Death Row Inmate

A Missouri death row inmate was granted another chance to challenge his conviction last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his court-appointed attorneys were ineffective as a result of their missing a crucial appeals deadline in 2005.

The High Court’s decision quoted expert testimony from Visiting Lecturer in Law Lawrence Fox, in which he stated, “If this was not abandonment, I am not sure what would be.”

The expert witness affidavit was prepared by students in the Ethics Bureau at Yale, a clinic at Yale Law School that is led by Fox. The students subsequently crafted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court explicating the conflict of interest of original counsel in the case of Christeson v. Roper.

The defendant, Mark Christeson, was sentenced to death for three murders that took place in south-central Missouri in 1998. His case has been through several levels of appeal. The Supreme Court entered a stay of execution in October, after an emergency petition for certiorari was filed based on his lawyers’ missing a key appeal deadline by more than six weeks back in 2005.

Fox said there was a significant conflict of interest infecting the case because, in order for Christeson’s former lawyers to obtain relief for their client, they would have had to admit to their own ineffectiveness.

In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, Christeson argued that he deserved the opportunity to show that he was entitled to the equitable tolling of The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 or AEDPA’s statute of limitations. The Supreme Court agreed, reversing without the oral argument a prior ruling of the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals against him, and remanding his case for further proceedings.

“He [Mr. Christeson] should have that opportunity, and is entitled to the assistance of substitute counsel in doing so,” states the opinion.

As a result of the ruling, Christeson will be appointed permanent new counsel to represent him moving forward.

The ruling, which was handed down on January 20, 2015, was significant because it is extremely rare for the Supreme Court to reverse and remand a case without first holding oral arguments, Fox said.

“The key here, and the reason the case is so important, is that the court found a conflict of interest and gave the client relief based on the fact that he had lawyers who labored under a conflict of interest without having to prove the effect of the conflict," explained Fox.

The case is the latest in a string of cases, including Holland v. Florida and Maples v. Thomas, involving relief from the one year statute of limitation. Holland v. Florida was the first case in which Yale students helped with an amicus brief and gave rise to the idea of the clinic, Fox said.

“Up until now, the main doctrine in court held that if a lawyer makes a mistake, because the lawyer is the agent of the client, the client is stuck with that mistake,” explained Fox. “And in these three cases, the court concluded that is no longer going to be the case.”

The Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School advises lawyers on how to proceed under the rules of professional conduct and other ethical dilemmas. Students draft amicus briefs in cases involving professional responsibility; help clients with ineffective assistance of counsel claims; and offer ethics advice to nonprofit organizations. A weekly class on professional responsibility is also part of the bureau’s activities. Currently, the bureau consists of 18 students.