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Ten years after new law, fewer state convictions ruled unconstitutional; Vanderbilt study finds fewer convictions and sentences overturned

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A new study led by Nancy King, Lee S. and Charles A. Speir Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University, finds that fewer state convictions and sentences are being ruled unconstitutional by federal courts.

The two-year study was partially funded by the National Institute of Justice and is the first to examine the effects of 1996 amendments to the habeas corpus law that apply when state prisoners challenge their convictions and sentences in federal court.

The research examined nearly 2,400 non-capital cases, randomly selected from among the more than 36,000 habeas cases filed in federal district courts nationwide by state prisoners during 2003 and 2004, and more than 360 death penalty cases filed in 13 federal districts between 2000 and 2002.

Before the 1996 law, known as the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act or “AEDPA,” federal courts granted a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner in about one of every 100 non-capital cases filed. A writ of habeas corpus is a mandate from a court to a prison official ordering that an inmate be be released from custody, re-sentenced, or retried. King’s research found that after the new law was enacted, the grant rate was closer to one in every 300 cases.

“More than one in every five of these cases was dismissed because the prisoner missed the new filing deadline,” said King.

The study also found a federal court was much more likely to overturn the conviction or sentence of an inmate on death row compared to other prisoners. King found that in the capital cases that had reached conclusion in federal court by the study’s end, one of every eight death sentences was invalidated.

Congress hoped to speed up federal habeas review when it amended the habeas law in 1996, but this new research found that habeas cases now take longer to finish. King said one of every four cases filed by death row inmates between 2000 and 2002 had not been resolved by the end of November 2006.

“Capital habeas cases in Texas federal courts were processed much more quickly than those in the other federal courts we examined,” said King. “In Arizona and Nevada, for example, less than a quarter of the cases filed by death row inmates during the study period had been resolved.”

Under regulations proposed earlier this summer by the Department of Justice, some states may soon qualify for fast-track processing of capital cases.

“Once a state meets the statute’s standards for providing attorneys to death row inmates in state court, the federal trial court must finish its review of any capital case from that state in just 450 days,” said King. “We looked at the federal courts where most of the capital cases are filed and none of them have been completing cases that fast.”

Commenting on the pending regulations earlier this month, the United States Judicial Conference warned that the processing deadlines for capital cases would place a “significant burden on federal courts, not only for the habeas cases in question, but for the entire criminal and civil dockets of the courts, which must give precedence to the capital habeas cases.”

In addition to timing and outcome, the new study tracked the different constitutional claims and procedural defenses raised in habeas cases. About one of every 10 petitions filed by death-row prisoners alleged that new evidence would show that the inmate was innocent. This claim was raised in five of the 33 cases in the study in which a federal court overturned a death sentence.

King’s research found that the most common reason for overturning a capital case was the failure of the state to provide the inmate with representation in state court that met constitutional standards.

Joining King on the study were co-authors Fred Cheesman and Brian Ostrom of the National Center for State Courts. An expert advisory committee of states’ attorneys, petitioners’ attorneys, as well as members of the state and federal judiciary assisted with the research. The study was funded by Vanderbilt Law School and the National Institute of Justice, the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The report is available at and

Media Contact: Amy Wolf, (615) 322- NEWS