A New Route for Post-Conviction Sentencing Challenges

Webster v. Daniels 14-1049

June 2015

In Webster v. Daniels No. 14-1049, a sharply divided en banc court tried to clarify the confusing jurisprudence around habeas petitions.

Webster and several accomplices committed a horrible kidnapping and murder. At trial in the Northern District of Texas, Webster and the government put on evidence regarding Webster’s intellectual disability. The district court entered a factual finding at sentencing that Webster was not intellectually disabled, and sentenced him to death. On direct appeal, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the conviction and the death-penalty sentence.

Webster then filed a §2255 motion for post-conviction relief. The district court and Fifth Circuit allowed Webster to pursue review of his intellectual disability and death sentence in light of the then-new decision Adkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), which prohibits execution of persons with intellectual disabilities. However, Webster’s efforts were not successful.

Four years later (and thirteen years after the original conviction), new counsel for Webster uncovered new evidence of intellectual disability. Webster attempted a second §2255 motion challenging his death sentence, but was denied because, according to the Fifth Circuit, §2255(h)(1) does not authorize a successive motion challenging an unconstitutional sentence based on newly discovered evidence, but rather only authorizes a successive challenge to the prisoner’s guilt of the offense.

With further §2255 review unavailable, Webster filed a §2241 petition in the Southern District of Indiana, where he is incarcerated, challenging the constitutionality of his death sentence in light of the newly discovered evidence. Although §2255 ordinarily prohibits federal prisoners from seeking relief under § 2241, Webster argued that the savings clause in §2255(e) allowed him to do so because the Fifth Circuit’s decision that §2255 does not permit successive review of an unconstitutional sentence made §2255 “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(e). The district court denied the petition, a Seventh Circuit panel affirmed, and the full court took the issue en banc.

A six-judge majority held that newly discovered evidence undermining an unconstitutional federal sentence can be presented via §2241 if: (1) the evidence existed at the time of the original trial; (2) the evidence was unavailable at the original trial despite trial counsel’s diligence; and (3) the evidence shows the petitioner is constitutionally ineligible for the penalty he received. To reach a hearing, a petitioner must make a prima facie showing of those three elements. If he does so, the petitioner can introduce evidence, the government can refute it, and the district court would decide, “as a matter of fact,” whether the petitioner is ineligible for the penalty. The Court held that Webster had made his prima facie case by clear and convincing evidence, but did not rule whether that standard versus a lower standard is required.

The lengthy opinions discuss many other related issues that are too numerous for this blog post.  The decision is surely a big win for Webster individually, but it is unclear how expansive the impact will be on other cases. The five-judge dissent suggests the floodgates will open to analogous §2241 challenges. The majority, by contrast, explicitly attempts to limit the reach of its holding with factual qualifiers. Moreover, the dissent (and possibly the majority, although it is unclear) disagrees with the Fifth Circuit’s conclusion that §2255(h)(1) does not allow successive review of an unconstitutional sentence based on new evidence. In the event other Circuits allow such review under §2255(h)(1), the need for §2241 relief in that circumstance would disappear.

Whatever the eventual impact, barring further review by the Supreme Court, the case provides a new post-conviction avenue for challenging death sentences based on newly discovered evidence. Practitioners interested in death penalty issues or post-conviction relief generally will benefit from reading this decision.