Intellectual disability determination and the death penalty

Request to submit “newly discovered evidence” to establish intellectual disability and ineligibility for death penalty not barred by 28 U.S.C § 2255(e) even after original appeal denied

Webster v. Daniels, 784 F.3d 1123 (7th Cir. 2015) (rehearing en banc)

Bruce Webster was convicted of kidnapping resulting in death and related offenses and was sentenced to death. These convictions and his death sentence were affirmed on direct appeal in Texas, and his motions for habeas relief, which were heard in Indiana where he resides on death row, were denied. Webster sought a rehearing en banc to address the question of whether he could file for a writ of habeas corpus to present new evidence demonstrating that he was categorically and constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002) and Hall v. Florida, 134 S.Ct. 1986 (2014). Federal prisoners who claim to be convicted or sentenced in violation of the Constitution must present a claim for relief by a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Subsection (e) generally prevents a prisoner from making an application for a writ of habeas corpus. There is, however, a savings clause in § 2255(e) that allows a prisoner to apply for a writ of habeas corpus where “it appears that the remedy by motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” A panel of the Seventh Circuit originally concluded that a claim of new evidence can never satisfy the standard in § 2255(e).

Upon rehearing en banc, the Seventh Circuit determined that “the savings clause [in § 2255(e)] permits Webster to resort to a [habeas] petition.” Of essential importance to the Court were the facts that “the Supreme Court has now established that the Constitution itself forbids the execution of certain people,” and that a “core purpose of habeas corpus is to prevent a custodian from inflicting an unconstitutional sentence.” The Court held that a categorical bar against the use of § 2255(e)’s savings clause in this way could lead to “the intolerable result of condoning an execution that violates the Eighth Amendment.” Conceding that this rule could not be applied to all newly discovered evidence due to finality considerations, the Court held that habeas relief was available to Webster because the new evidence proffered existed before the time of the trial and there was evidence “indicating that [it] was not available during the initial trial as a result of missteps by the Social Security Administration, not Webster’s counsel.”

Found in DMHL Volume 34 Issue 2