U.S. Supreme Court Update: Beard v. Kindler

A Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section, http://www.abanet.org/crimjust

Beard v. Kindler, No. 08-992 (U.S. Dec. 8, 2009)

“The Court decided a capital habeas matter involving whether Pennsylvania’s fugitive forfeiture rule provided an adequate basis to bar federal habeas review of petitioner’s claims, grant of habeas petition is vacated and remanded where a state procedural rule is not automatically “inadequate” under the adequate state ground doctrine (and therefore unenforceable on federal habeas review) because the state rule was discretionary rather than mandatory).

The respondent, Kindler was convicted of capital murder in Pennsylvania. The jury recommended the death sentence. Kindler subsequently filed post verdict motions but before the trial court could consider the motions he escaped and fled to Canada. He was picked up in Canada, escaped again and was eventually caught and now back in custody. During the time he was escaping the court dismissed the motions. Once back in prison Kindler moved to reinstate the motions which the trial court denied.

Kindler argued on direct appeal that the trial court erred in declining to address the merits of his post verdict motions, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed. Kindler’s claims were rejected on state habeas, and he sought federal habeas relief. Under the adequate state ground doctrine, a federal habeas court will not review a claim rejected by a state court “if the decision of [the state] court rests on a state law ground that is independent of the federal question and adequate to support the judgment.” Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U. S. 722, 729. The District Court nonetheless granted Kindler’s habeas petition, determining that the state fugitive forfeiture rule did not provide an adequate basis to bar federal review of Kindler’s habeas claims. The Third Circuit affirmed, and the Commonwealth petitioned for certiorari.

Held: A state procedural rule is not automatically “inadequate” under the adequate state ground doctrine-and therefore unenforceable on federal habeas review-because the state rule is discretionary rather than mandatory. The question whether a state procedural ruling is adequate is itself a question of federal law. Given the federalism and comity concerns motivating the adequate state ground doctrine in the habeas context, see Coleman, supra, at 730, this Court should not disregard discretionary state procedural rules that are in place in nearly every State and are substantially similar to those given full force in federal courts. Cf. Francis v. Henderson, 425 U. S. 536, 541–542. Pp. 7–9.”


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