Indigent Death Row Prisoner Denied Federal Review Because Filing Fee is Paid Late

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A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on December 28, 2012, affirmed a lower court decision denying federal court review to Alabama death row inmate Ronald Smith because he is indigent and could not pay his filing fee promptly.

Alabama is the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. Ronald Smith was found to be indigent by Alabama courts and could not afford to hire an attorney to represent him in state postconviction proceedings to challenge his conviction and death sentence.

A volunteer lawyer from out of state timely filed Mr. Smith's postconviction petition. Weeks later, the court clerk sent counsel a note advising him to pay the filing fee or file a motion to waive the filing fee because of Mr. Smith's poverty. Counsel then paid the filing fee.

Mr. Smith's out-of-state lawyer never sought permission to represent him in Alabama, and his local lawyer was charged with nine counts of possession for a controlled substance and placed on disability inactive status just a few months after taking Mr. Smith's case.

The Alabama state courts denied relief on Mr. Smith's postconviction petition and, through different volunteer counsel, he filed a petition requesting review in federal court. The State argued that all federal review was barred because the state court filing fee was paid late.

The federal trial court agreed, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that Mr. Smith's state petition was not "properly filed" because he did not pay the filing fee or request indigent status on time, and therefore the state petition did not toll the one-year federal filing deadline. The federal appeals court held that Mr. Smith's petition was late and he is blocked from receiving any federal review of his case.

The decision comes in the wake of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Maples v. Alabama holding that an Alabama death row prisoner who had been abandoned by his volunteer out-of-state counsel should not be barred from federal review. The Court criticized Alabama's failure to provide legal assistance to death row inmates, observing that inmates are forced to rely on volunteers and "some prisoners sentenced to death receive no postconviction representation at all."

Eleventh Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett dissented in Mr. Smith's case, arguing that, just like in Maples, Mr. Smith had no competent counsel to properly file his state petition and should not be barred from federal review because the filing fee was paid late through no fault of his own.