Heroic Work to Prevent Missouri Execution
This week the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals set the briefing for review of a federal district court’s arbitrary denial of funding that has resulted in deprivation of meaningful assistance of counsel for a mentally impaired death row inmate. NAPD’s Amicus Committee joined with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, NACDL, and NLADA to file an amicus brief in Christeson v. Roper, No. 16-2730, supporting Mark Christeson’s right to appeal the district court orders and the court of appeals’ need to review critical issues in the district court’s treatment of this case remanded from the United States Supreme Court in 2015. The American Bar Association and a group of former federal and state court judges also submitted briefs supporting Mr. Christeson’s right to appeal. Jenny Merrigan and Joe Perkovich of Phillips Black have done and continue to do heroic work as substitute habeas counsel for Mr. Christeson.
Shockingly, the state of Missouri seeks to execute Mr. Christeson on January 31, 2017 despite the pending appeal, which involves powerful new evidence of Mr. Christeson’s mental impairment and severe childhood trauma centered on extreme sexual victimization and abject poverty that was never presented at trial or in state post-conviction proceedings. That evidence also has been blocked from federal review because Mr. Christeson’s original court-appointed habeas lawyers failed to investigate and present the evidence and then abandoned him, missing a one-year statutory filing deadline by 117 days and misleading him about the status of his closed case. Mr. Christeson was within hours of execution when the United States Supreme Court intervened to grant a stay, reversed the Eighth Circuit, and sent the case back to the Kansas City district court to appoint new counsel. The district court appointed new counsel but refused to grant adequate funding to fully investigate and present a defense to the procedural default caused by prior counsel’s abandonment. That defense, recognized by the Supreme Court, involves developing and presenting evidence of Mr. Christeson’s cognitive disabilities. The State has asked the Eighth Circuit to expedite the briefing, seeking to rush the proceedings and execute Mr. Christeson on January 31.
The brief of NAPD and co-amici argued that the district court’s refusal to provide adequate funding was a constructive denial of counsel. Critically, this denial foreclosed counsel’s ability to develop and present medical and mental health expert evidence to show Mr. Christeson, especially given his conditions of imprisonment, was unable to assert his own rights in the courts when his prior lawyers abandoned him. The district court denied the necessary funding despite the guarantee in the federal statutory right to counsel to qualified legal representation and, critically, to the use of medical and scientific forensic experts and investigators to mount necessary defenses.
Mae Quinn, Director of the MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, noted that “Such denial of resources is sadly consistent with the culture and ongoing challenges faced by the Missouri criminal and juvenile defense bar,” in a state where “the public defender system ranks 49th in the country for funding, recently filed suit to obtain monies withheld by the executive branch, and out of desperation actually conscripted the Governor, as a member of the bar, to serve as an appointed defender on state court case.”
It is NAPD’s position that, for attorneys tasked with representing indigent capital defendants in federal habeas proceedings, the practices in Missouri have created an untenable system in which counsel cannot satisfy basic constitutional and ethical duties. The trial court’s order threatens the integrity of the legal system and discourages competent counsel from taking on these important cases. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals should deny the State’s motion to expedite, permit adequate time for the briefing, and ensure that Mr. Christeson receives the full and fair hearing that justice demands.