What is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)?

What is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)?

The AEDPA, passed in 1996, placed new limits on federal habeas corpus that made it more difficult for many inmates to successfully bring habeas corpus actions:

  • It imposed a one-year statute of limitations on habeas petitions;
  • It required filers of second or successive habeas corpus petitions to seek permission from the Court of Appeals before filing; and
  • It limited federal habeas relief from state-court convictions to cases where the state court’s rulings were “contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Passed in 1996, the AEDPA was intended to stem the flood of habeas petitions making their way through the federal courts, lightening the workloads of federal judges at the expense of prisoners who may have valid claims that they are being held (or about to be executed) unlawfully…

Why are we still talking about the AEDPA more than 20 years after its passage? Because it is a horrible law that flies in the face of the purpose of federal habeas – in the name of judicial economy, it perpetuates injustices instead of correcting injustices.

What are the Requirements of the AEDPA?

The AEDPA imposed new requirements on federal habeas petitions that were designed to reduce the number of habeas petitions pending in the courts and to make it more difficult for prisoners to get relief through habeas petitions, including imposing a statute of limitations, limiting successive habeas petitions, and imposing a strict test for when a habeas petition may be granted.

What Is the Statute of Limitations for Federal Habeas Petitions?

The statute of limitations for a federal habeas petition, including habeas review of state court convictions and 2255 motions based on ineffective assistance of counsel, is one year.

One year from when? Depending on the status of your case, it may be:

  • One year from conviction;
  • One year from sentencing;
  • One year from the final state court proceeding that exhausts your state court remedies (which will often be the denial of your state court post-conviction appeal); or
  • One year from the date of discovery of new evidence, but only when the applicant can prove “by clear and convincing evidence that but for constitutional error, no reasonable factfinder would have found the applicant guilty of the underlying offense:”

Can You File More Than One Habeas Petition in Federal Court?

Successive habeas petitions (any petition filed after the first petition has been decided) must be approved by the Circuit Court of Appeals, who will reject any successive petition that does not contain:

  • Newly discovered evidence “sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found the movant guilty of the offense;” or

  • A new rule of constitutional law that has been made retroactive by the US Supreme Court.

How Does the AEDPA Limit Habeas Petitions?

The AEDPA limited habeas claims, requiring federal courts to reject habeas petitions unless they:

(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or

(2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

These requirements, as intended, have limited the number of habeas petitions filed in the federal court and have made it extremely difficult to succeed in a federal habeas claim, resulting in the majority of habeas petitions being rejected by the federal district and appeals courts.

How Did the AEDPA Affect Prisoner’s Rights in the United States?

On an initial reading, the restrictions of the AEDPA sound reasonable, don’t they? When we take a look at the effect they have had on the federal judiciary’s ability to correct injustices, however, we can see why so many federal practitioners, commentators, and judges have been complaining about it.

For example:

Hector Ayala was convicted of an execution-style triple murder and sentenced to death. At the start of his trial, his prosecutors struck every Black or Hispanic juror, keeping them off his jury. The trial judge allowed the prosecution to explain their jury strikes – totally part of the process.

But it was done in private, the defense attorneys were not even allowed to hear the explanation given, and there was no record created of the “secret” Batson hearing. The trial judge approved the jury strikes, and, without a record to review, the US Supreme Court upheld the trial judge’s decision.

Maybe he was guilty. Maybe he deserved to die (that’s a discussion for another day). But he definitely deserved a fair trial that was not tainted by racism before he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Shirley Ree Smith was convicted of shaking her 7-week-old grandson to death in California based on the “shaken baby syndrome” theory that has since been called into question, despite only one of three symptoms of “shaken baby syndrome” being present and despite the distinct possibility that the phenomenon of “shaken baby syndrome” was based on faulty science in the first place.

Although the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and released Smith from prison, finding that “there has very likely been a miscarriage of justice in this case,” the US Supreme Court reversed their decision based on the requirements of the AEDPA (Smith’s sentence was later commuted to time served by the governor of California).

Troy Davis was executed for the murder of an off-duty police officer in Georgia, despite new evidence which included that seven of the nine witnesses against him recanted their testimony and new witnesses who implicated another person in the murder. After multiple appeals and a final evidentiary hearing with an openly hostile district court judge, his final habeas petition to the US Supreme Court was denied.

Judges have complained that the AEDPA has forced them to sit idly by and watch as inmates they believe are innocent are denied hearings. In a “justice” system that is run by imperfect, angry, impatient, racist, or incompetent human beings, we must allow the courts to review all credible claims of innocence or unfair trials.

The AEDPA took America in a different direction, in many cases allowing injustices to happen without the possibility of review by the federal courts.

Federal Habeas Review Attorney in Columbia, SC

Elizabeth Franklin-Best is a federal habeas lawyer located in Columbia, SC.

For more information, call us at (803) 331-3421 or email us through our website to set up a consultation about your case.