Eleventh Circuit Rules Prisoner’s Habeas Motion Was Timely and Should Be Considered – Kearse v. Florida Dept. of Corrections

December 25, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

For people already serving time on criminal charges, a petition for habeas corpus is an important tool for getting the courts to take a second look. A habeas corpus petition asks the court to release a prisoner because a serious mistake was made during his or her initial trial. They are rarely granted, but they can be vital in cases of serious problems, such as ineffective assistance of counsel or prosecutorial misconduct. And because everyone is entitled to due process of law, petitioners are free to appeal denials up to the appeals courts, which is what happened with Kearse v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections. Billy Leon Kearse had been to the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before, after a trial court found his petition was improperly filed. The trial court denied his petition on remand, but the Eleventh found that the petition was not time-barred and Kearse could make his case.

Kearse was convicted and sentenced to death for a first-degree murder and armed robbery that took place in 1991. He had prior appeals to the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined the case in 2001. He then began pursuing a habeas corpus petition, which has a statute of limitations—a deadline by which he must sue. As a result, a controversy arose over when Kearse filed his first post-conviction motion with the state. He sent his first papers to the court on September 27, 2001; the court dismissed it for lack of including an oath in November of that year. Florida Supreme Court ultimately heard second and third motions, denying relief most recently in May of 2009. He then filed the instant petition for habeas corpus, whose one-year statute of limitations is tolled while properly filed state motions are pending. The district court denied relief, saying Kearse’s initial motion was not properly filed, but the Eleventh, in a previous hearing, said Kearse should have the right to rebut that. On remand, the district court again denied relief.

The Eleventh reviewed for—and found—clear error in the district court’s determination that Kearse hadn’t proven the initial motion was properly filed. In essence, the appeals court found that the original state trial court erred when it said Kearse failed to include the required oath with his initial petition. Kearse filed a verification with his motion that was entered into the record as the same document; it is clearly in the record, the Eleventh said. Indeed, the court observed, “it is difficult to imagine stronger evidence than the actual state court record on appeal and the language of the Verification itself.” Though the appeals court generally defers to state-court findings, it said, it cannot let this one stand. Thus, the court found that Kearse had rebutted the presumption of state-court correctness. It sent the case back to district court for a hearing on the merits.

In my experience, courts sometimes don’t treat post-conviction motions from people with serious criminal convictions seriously enough. That might be because so many prisoners file these petitions, with or without any merit. But as this case shows, some petitions are meritorious, because sometimes, courts really do make mistakes. And when the mistake lands someone in prison on a very serious sentence like Kearse’s, it’s important for the court to listen closely. An experienced criminal defense lawyer like the ones at Seltzer Law, P.A. can help defendants make their best cases to avoid a conviction and lay the groundwork for appeals.

If you’re charged with a crime in Florida, don’t wait to call Seltzer Law to discuss your rights and your options. We answer the phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week because we know the police don’t stop working after business hours. You can reach us at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us a message online.

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Ninth Circuit Declines Habeas Petition in Case of Computer Generated Child Porn – Shoemaker v. Taylor

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