Thursday, March 03, 2005

Garceau v. Woodford (9th Cir. - March 3, 2005)

So much work went into getting Frederick Garceau killed, just to have him die in prison.

Garceau "allegedly" kills several people in 1984, and has been on death row ever since. His death sentence was affirmed by the California Supreme Court in 1994 (and the Supreme Court denied certiorari), he got a panel of the Ninth Circuit to reverse the denial of his federal habeas petition in 2001, saw that decision reversed by the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision, then briefed and argued the remanded habeas petition before the Ninth Circuit in early 2004. Then, over nine months after oral argument before the Ninth Circuit, and while the relevant clerk presumably plods away on a new decision rejecting his habeas petition, Garceau dies in prison. What bad form.

So, two months later, the Ninth Circuit issues a two-paragraph opinion that dismisses the petition based upon his death. All that work for naught.

Parenthetically, I say that he "allegedly" killed several people because it's unclear what precisely happens to his conviction upon his death. I think -- but am just going off memory here -- that California is still one of the relatively few states that voids convictions ab initio if the defendant dies before they've exhausted their right to appeal. It's unclear whether that same rule should apply when the defendant dies with a pending habeas petition. Usually, I'd imagine that it shouldn't. But in a death penalty case, the habeas petition does seem like a fairly integral part of the process. Plus, what if the defendant died after a habeas petition had been granted but before the decision was final (e.g., it was still subject to appeal by the State)? Seems like the rationale for the ab initio doctrine applies there too. Anyway, I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but did ponder them for a half second. And didn't want to get sued (or have to prove that Garceau was in fact guilty) in case his conviction was void. So I said "allegedly". And then rambled on a tangent about the ab initio doctrine. Sorry about that.