Sunday, September 25, 2005
From a press release: Students in Professor Ursula Bentele’s Capital Defender and Federal Habeas Clinic are aware of the uphill battle faced by their clients, particularly given the recent restrictions on the federal habeas corpus remedy. It was therefore gratifying for her to receive word in mid-September that a district court granted habeas relief to one of the clinic’s first clients.
Credit for the rare habeas victory is shared by Danielle Feman, ’04, Alex Lesman, ’05, and Alex Riley ’04, who developed the challenging legal theories in the case starting in the fall of 2003. A federal habeas petition is the final opportunity for a defendant to assert that his or her conviction in state court was unconstitutionally obtained. A 1996 statute has made it more difficult than ever to be granted relief in federal court. Students in the clinic work on federal habeas petitions filed by inmates in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York.
The defendant in the case had been tried and sentenced in absentia. When he was apprehended to start serving the sentence, he sought to appeal the conviction. The state refused to assign counsel to him and dismissed the appeal on the basis that he had been a fugitive. The federal court determined that the state’s failure to allow this indigent defendant to perfect his appeal, with the assistance of counsel, violated clearly established Supreme Court law. The court ordered that the client be released unless within 60 days the state permits the appeal to go forward. “If the trial was unfair, or the evidence of the client’s guilt was not sufficient, he would be entitled to a new trial or to be freed,” Bentele explained. “Of course, if there was no prejudicial error at trial the conviction will be affirmed, but at least a court will have reviewed the case.
“What makes these cases so valuable from a student’s perspective is that the law is incredibly complex,” Bentele said. “Students who work on them get a good grounding in constitutional theory, which will stand them in good stead no matter what area of law they pursue.”