High court gives death-row inmates some leeway

January 24, 1995|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Trying make sure that innocent individuals are not executed, the Supreme Court opened the federal courthouse door slightly wider yesterday for inmates who claim they did not commit the crimes.

In a 5-4 decision that the majority said will apply only to "truly extraordinary" cases, the court gave a Missouri death-row inmate a new chance to convince a federal judge that he did not murder another inmate in the cellblock.

The inmate insists that he was standing in the prison cafeteria at the time and that he has a videotape to prove it.

The ruling involves state prison inmates whose challenges to their convictions ordinarily would be barred entirely from federal courts because the inmates could not satisfy the Supreme Court's increasingly tight limits on access to those courts.

The court, however, always has left open a last-ditch chance to get into federal court by claiming innocence.

Yesterday, for the first time, the court spelled out what an innocence claim must include, and how the last chance to put it forward is to be handled by federal judges. The dissenting justices, however, protested that the court had made the matter more complex, not clearer.

Although the court justified its ruling in part by voicing concern about a potential execution of an innocent person, its ruling was broader than cases involving death-row inmates: It apparently will apply across the board to state prisoners who normally would be barred from federal court but are trying to get in with a claim of innocence.

The exact scope of the ruling, in practice, remained unclear because Justice Sandra Day O'Connor -- whose fifth vote was needed to make a majority -- said in a separate opinion that the ruling did not create a mandatory new right of access to federal courts.

She said that issue remains unsettled, perhaps leaving it to the discretion of individual federal judges for now.

Justice Antonin Scalia, while vigorously protesting the ruling in one of the dissenting opinions, made a point of suggesting to federal judges that they have a choice not to grant this new form of access.

The decision came in a case, now well-known in Missouri, involving Lloyd Eugene Schlup of Sedalia, whose life was temporarily spared eight hours before he was to be executed in November 1993.

Schlup contends that he could not have murdered fellow inmate Arthur "Stump" Dade in the cellblock 11 years ago. A timed videotape shows Schlup first in line for food before guards are seen leaving the cafeteria to respond to the crime.

Besides the videotape, Schlup has new statements from other inmates saying he did not do the killing, and a new statement from a former prison officer supporting a key part of his story.

Schlup's case is now being reviewed by a clemency panel

appointed by the governor. Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling raised the possibility that Schlup could get a hearing before a federal judge on his innocence claim, even if the governor does not act to spare him.

Lower federal courts had ruled that Schlup was not allowed to bring his innocence plea to them. Yesterday, the justices did not guarantee him a federal court hearing.

Instead, they sent the case back to lower courts to let Schlup try to offer enough evidence, on paper, of his innocence and for those courts to judge whether it was enough to justify a full-scale hearing on the claim.

The court also acted on a wide variety of other issues yesterday before beginning a four-week recess.

* It left undisturbed a lower court's ruling that Pan American World Airways and its security staff were at fault for the crash of Pan Am Flight 103 near Lockerbie, Scotland, just before Christmas in 1988. The plane was the target of a terrorist bombing that the lower court said the airline did little to prevent.

The justices' action will allow a federal court to go ahead and assess damages that may total $1 billion to the survivors of the 243 passengers and 16 crew members who died when the New York-bound plane went down after exploding. Already, three families have been awarded a total of nearly $20 million. More than 200 other claims are still to be calculated.

* The court cleared the way for Filipinos or their relatives living in this country to collect nearly $2 billion in damages from the estate of the late Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, for atrocities committed by his regime before he fled to the United States after a popular revolt in 1986.

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