A Jackson Walker team gave a Mississippi man a chance to have his claims heard in court, reversing a lower court that had held he missed the deadline for his habeas corpus petition. In a unanimous decision issued on August 8, 2022, the Fifth Circuit held that the lower court had miscalculated the deadline by failing to include a 90-day period during which the client, Reginald Wallace, could have sought U.S. Supreme Court review of the underlying conviction. The opinion gives certainty to other Mississippi inmates who are trying to figure out when to file their habeas petitions and to the courts who are deciding those petitions.
Jackson Walker attorneys Jennifer S. Freel and Emily Rhine represented Mr. Wallace pro bono, along with Bryan Gividen, who is an attorney working in-house. Jennifer argued the case on behalf of Mr. Wallace.
Reginald Wallace is a Mississippi state prisoner who sought habeas relief under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (ADEPA), 28 U.S.C. § 2241 et seq. On September 24, 2012, Mr. Wallace pleaded guilty to felony armed robbery charges. Under Mississippi state law, there is no direct appeal for a guilty plea, and Mr. Wallace did not seek a writ of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ten months after his sentencing, Mr. Wallace filed a pro se motion for state post-conviction relief, arguing that his guilty plea was involuntary and that he received ineffective assistance from state counsel when she failed to communicate to him a lesser offense plea offer. His state post-conviction relief was ultimately denied.
Four months after the state mandate issued, Mr. Wallace, through new counsel, filed for federal habeas relief. The State of Mississippi moved to dismiss the petition as untimely under AEDPA, which imposes a one-year period to file a § 2254 petition for habeas relief from a state-court judgment. The one-year period begins running from the latest of the state-court judgment of conviction’s “bec[oming] final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review.” 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A). The one-year period is tolled during state post-conviction or other collateral review. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(2).
The State maintained that the judgment became final on June 6, 2013, the day the Order of Sentence was filed. Assuming a one-year deadline and accounting for statutory tolling under AEDPA’s tolling provision, the State represented that Mr. Wallace’s petition was due by May 3, 2019. The petition was filed 61 days later, on July 3, 2019. Mississippi district courts had habitually calculated this deadline under the assumption that a criminal defendant who is sentenced after pleading guilty in Mississippi is not entitled to the 90-day period to seek certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court, and Mr. Wallace’s district-court counsel agreed the petition was untimely. District-court counsel requested that the court apply equitable tolling, which it declined to do, dismissing Mr. Wallace’s habeas petition as time-barred.
Fifth Circuit Appeal
Mr. Wallace was appointed pro bono counsel for his appeal to the Fifth Circuit. At the Fifth Circuit, Jennifer Freel, Emily Rhine, and Bryan Gividen argued that under a plain reading of § 2254, Mr. Wallace was entitled to an additional 90 days to file his petition, factoring in the 90-day period to seek certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court may review a final state-court judgment if it is “rendered by the highest court of a State in which a decision could be had.” 28 U.S.C. § 1257(a). Since Mississippi prisoners who plead guilty are prohibited from pursuing a direct appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, the trial court where Mr. Wallace pled guilty was the highest court in which a decision could be had.
As such, the team argued that Mr. Wallace had the right to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which meant that the expiration of his time for seeking direct review was 90 days after his judgment became final, making his petition timely.
The State of Mississippi argued that the Mississippi trial court was not the highest court in which a decision could be had because Mr. Wallace could pursue state post-conviction review, and that even if it were, the U.S. Supreme Court would have lacked jurisdiction to review any federal claims because Mr. Wallace had not raised such claims in state court.
In a 28-page opinion authored by Judge Barksdale, the Fifth Circuit held that the district court committed plain, reversible error in its calculation of the habeas petition deadline and remanded for further proceedings.
The Court dismissed the State’s arguments, first emphasizing the distinction in 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d) between direct and collateral review: “[A]gain, the one-year period begins running at the expiration of time to seek direct review.” The court noted that because Mr. Wallace could not appeal his guilty plea to a higher Mississippi court, his guilty plea conviction was the requisite final word of a final court, and the 90-day period for seeking a writ of certiorari was available to him and was triggered when the judgment was filed after sentencing.
The Court also held that there was no support for the position that the 90-day period would not apply if the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to review Mr. Wallace’s claims. Section “2244(d)(1)(A) imposes no requirement that, for the 90-day period to apply, the Court must have jurisdiction over a petition for writ of certiorari, if filed.” In addition to concluding that a bright line rule was compelled by the plain wording of § 2244(d)(1), the Court also emphasized the need to provide certainty in the procedural requirements for federal habeas relief, one of the underlying goals of AEDPA.
For Mr. Wallace, this means a federal district court will consider the merits of his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. He maintains that his original trial counsel never informed him of a plea offer to a charge that carried a lower sentence. If the district court agrees, Mr. Wallace could receive a lower sentence than the 30-years he is currently serving.
The case is Wallace v. State of Mississippi, No. 20-60098.
Meet Our Team
A former federal prosecutor, Jennifer S. Freel advises businesses and individuals under investigation by the government and conducts internal investigations for companies seeking an independent party. She also represents clients in civil disputes at the pre-trial, trial, and appellate levels in state and federal court. She is an elected Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation, a trustee of the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society, a past chair of the Criminal Law Section of the Federal Bar Association, and a past president of the Austin Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. Her Investigations & White Collar Defense experience has been recognized in Chambers USA: America’s Leading Lawyers for Business since 2021 and The Best Lawyers in America since 2022.
Emily Rhine is an associate in Dallas focused on commercial and business litigation. Emily represents public and privately-held companies in state and federal court in a variety of litigation matters, including media litigation, real estate litigation, breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and other complex commercial litigation. She also manages discovery, drafts federal and state motions, and contributes to litigation strategy.
The win marks another example of Jackson Walker securing results for its clients, from the Fortune 100 and its executive suites to those less fortunate in our communities. Our dedicated Pro Bono program provides support for attorneys’ pro bono efforts both in terms of legal service and financial support. To learn more about the Firm’s efforts to help ensure equal access to justice, visit our Pro Bono page.
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