With the release of the film Just Mercy, the debate over balancing the prevention of wrongful convictions against the assurance of finality in serious criminal matters has once again come into the spotlight. This dispute is not only receiving national attention in pop culture, but is also making headlines in the judicial field with the emergence of a new circuit split.
A habeas petition is a method invoked by prisoners seeking an early release by challenging the legitimacy of their detention. In 1996, the ability to file habeas petitions was limited with the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”). Under AEDPA, a prisoner has just one opportunity to file a motion to vacate the earlier sentence. A second opportunity is permitted only when the Supreme Court adopts a new and favorable rule of constitutional law. Prisoners are also restricted to just one habeas petition, unless they can demonstrate that AEDPA’s remedy is “inadequate or ineffective.”
Can the AEDPA remedy be considered inadequate or ineffective, thereby circumventing the single habeas restriction, when a new rule of statutory construction is adopted by a circuit court?
In Hueso v. Barnhart (2020), the Sixth Circuit split from the Fourth Circuit, interpreting AEDPA to increase restrictions on habeas rights. Hueso was convicted of drug trafficking in Alaska. He was initially sentenced to 10 years in prison; however, the term was doubled under a federal sentencing law. The year after his conviction, the Supreme Court rejected the interpretation permitting doubling. At the time, Hueso’s counsel had already filed a Motion to Vacate challenging evidence, which was rejected. Counsel then filed a habeas petition based on the Supreme Court ruling. The court denied the petition based on Sixth Circuit precedent that barred habeas cases from entertaining challenges based on sentencing. However, in 2016, the Sixth Circuit overturned its previous holding, thereby permitting sentencing-based habeas petitions.
As a result, Hueso’s counsel filed another habeas petition, but this time it was rejected under AEDPA. Hueso appealed to the Sixth Circuit, arguing that he should be permitted to file a second habeas under AEDPA because the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. The Sixth Circuit denied the appeal on two bases. First, the Sixth Circuit reasoned that the Supreme Court ruling rejecting double sentencing could not be introduced in a subsequent challenge as the decision was made while Hueso’s first Motion to Vacate was pending. The court reasoned that the decision was available at the time of the challenge and, therefore, the failure to mention it barred a second attempt. Second, the Sixth Circuit held that the second habeas petition was correctly denied because the basis of the petition centered on a circuit court decision to permit sentencing-based habeas petitions. The Sixth Circuit rationalized that this decision was not constitutional law, as required under AEDPA, and thus could not be a basis for seeking to file subsequent petitions.
The Sixth Circuit’s reasoning diverged from the Fourth Circuit’s prior interpretation in United States v. Wheeler (2018). Wheeler was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and possession of a firearm. Wheeler entered into a plea deal, agreeing to an enhanced sentence with a mandatory minimum of 120 months. The next year, Wheeler’s counsel filed a Motion to Vacate, citing both inefficient counsel and the fact that the conviction did not qualify for an enhanced sentence. The Motion was denied based on Fourth Circuit precedent allowing a maximum aggravated sentence to be imposed. Wheeler’s counsel sought to appeal by filing a certificate of appealability. While the appeal was pending, the previous precedent relied upon was overturned by the Fourth Circuit with a finding that a district court could only consider the maximum sentence that the particular defendant could receive in enhanced sentence matters. However, Wheeler’s appeal was still denied based on the reasoning that the new decision could not be applied retroactively.
Wheeler’s counsel subsequently filed a habeas petition, arguing that the AEDPA remedy was inadequate and ineffective. In this case, the Fourth Circuit upheld the inadequacy on appeal. The court reasoned:
“[W]e conclude that [AEDPA] is inadequate and ineffective to test the legality of a sentence when: (1) at the time of sentencing, settled law of this circuit or the Supreme Court established the legality of the sentence; subsequent to the prisoner’s direct appeal and first … motion, the aforementioned settled substantive law changed and was deemed to apply retroactively on collateral review; (3) the prisoner is unable to meet the gatekeeping requirements … for second or successive motions; and (4) due to this retroactive change, the sentence now presents an error sufficiently grave to be deemed a fundamental defect.”
Following the Wheeler decision, the Solicitor General, on behalf of the United States, filed a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. The petition was denied in March 2019, before the split emerged. The developing split has the potential for unfortunate consequences for prisoners based solely on the region they are imprisoned in. The split will inevitably result in disparate results concerning a prisoner’s rights to seek relief and retrial in the case of wrongful convictions. In the Sixth Circuit, Judge Karen Nelson Moore acknowledged the disparity in her dissent, pointing out that Hueso would “almost certainly prevail” had he attacked his sentence the first time, and noting that, as a result of the majority interpretation, Hueso would be spending another decade incarcerated.