Supreme Court Rules On 2 Prisoner Rights Cases
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At the U.S. Supreme Court, two prisoners have won important victories. In one case, the court decided a religious rights question for prisoners. In the other, the court took the rear step of reversing the lower courts in a case involving the death penalty. For all practical purposes, that decision is giving the defendant a chance to have his conviction and death sentence reviewed by the federal courts. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 1999, Mark Christeson was convicted and sentenced to death for committing three brutal murders. By 2014, the Missouri Supreme Court was about to set an execution date when Christeson's court-appointed lawyers contacted death penalty experts for help with a federal appeal. But by then, it was too late, way too late.
Years earlier, the lawyers had missed the filing deadline for a federal appeal. The death penalty experts who'd been contacted then sought to replace the court-appointed lawyers because the only possible argument for an appeal at that late date was that the court-appointed lawyers, by blowing the deadline, had failed to adequately represent their client. The original lawyers, however, refused to step aside, and the lower courts refused to request to substitute the new lawyers.
Yesterday, in an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts should have acknowledged that the original court-appointed lawyers had a conflict of interest and could not have been expected to make a legal argument which threatened their professional reputations and livelihoods. Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented.
Jessica Merrigan is one of the new lawyers who will now be able to ask to be substituted as Christeson's lawyer and who likely will get the chance to persuade the federal courts that he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. She contends that his court-appointed appellate lawyers took advantage of his low IQ and intentionally misled him about his prospects, even when the state Supreme Court was about to set an execution date. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly identify Mark Christeson's attorney as Jessica Merrigan. She is Jennifer Merrigan.]
JENNIFER MERRIGAN: His lawyers never interviewed a single witness about his case. They never talked to a single doctor to look at his deficits. We will be investigating Mark's life. We will be investigating the crime. There were serious constitutional errors at his trial, and those have never been looked into.
TOTENBERG: In a second U.S. Supreme Court decision yesterday, the justices ruled that an Arkansas prisoner must be allowed to wear a short beard in accordance with his religious tenets. Federal law bars public institutions like prisons from imposing a substantial and unjustified burden on the free exercise of religion. In this case, the prisoner who converted to Islam sought permission to grow a half-inch beard. State prison officials refused, however, citing security concerns that the beard, for instance, could be used to hide contraband.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the unanimous court, called those justifications hard to swallow. He noted that prison systems in the vast majority of states and the federal system all allow prisoners to grow beards, and he pointed to the fact that prisoners in Arkansas are allowed to grow hair on their heads and wear clothes, all more plausible places to hide contraband. When so many prisons offer an accommodation, the court said, a prison must at minimum offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course. And Arkansas failed to make that showing here. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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Correction Jan. 21, 2015
We incorrectly identify lawyer Jennifer Merrigan as Jessica Merrigan.