RESPONDENT: Joseph Kindler
LOCATION: State Correctional Institution - Graterford PA
DOCKET NO.: 08-992
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
CITATION: 558 US 53 (2009)
GRANTED: May 18, 2009
ARGUED: Nov 02, 2009
DECIDED: Dec 08, 2009
Matthew C. Lawry - argued the cause for the respondent
Ronald Eisenberg - argued the cause for the petitioners
Facts of the case
Joseph Kindler was convicted of first degree murder in a Pennsylvania state court and sentenced to death. He subsequently filed motions for post-conviction relief, but while the motions were pending, he escaped from prison. Pennsylvania immediately moved to dismiss the motions arguing that Mr. Kindler had waived any right to have his post-conviction motions considered because he was a fugitive. The trial court agreed and dismissed them. After recapture, Mr. Kindler moved to reinstate his post-conviction motions, which was denied. Both the Pennsylvania Superior Court and Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's decision.
In 2000, Mr. Kindler filed a petition for federal habeas corpus relief in a Pennsylvania federal district court. The State of Pennsylvania argued that habeas corpus relief was unavailable to Mr. Kindler because Pennsylvania's fugitive waiver rule was an "independent and adequate" state ground that precluded federal habeas review. The district court disagreed and granted the petition. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. Relying on its decision in Doctor v. Walters, it held that Pennsylvania's fugitive waiver rule was not an independent and adequate state ground that precluded federal habeas review.
Under the adequate-state-ground doctrine, does a state procedural rule like Pennsylvania's fugitive waiver rule preclude federal habeas corpus review even though the state procedural rule is discretionary?
Media for Beard v. KindlerAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 02, 2009 in Beard v. Kindler
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 08, 2009 in Beard v. Kindler
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
I have our opinion in case 08-992 Beard vs. Kindler.
Joseph Kindler was convicted of capital murder in Pennsylvania State Court and the jury recommended a death sentence.
Kindler filed post verdict motions challenging his conviction and sentence, but before the trial court could consider the motions, Kindler escaped from the maximum security wing of the prison where he was being held and fled north to Canada.
The state trial court dismissed Kindler’s post verdict motions because of his escape.
Canadian authorities eventually arrested Kindler for burglary in Québec and discovered that he was wanted in the United States, but before he could be extradited, Kindler escaped again.
This time Kindler broke through a skylight on the 13th floor of the jail and using bed sheets tied together, successfully repelled down the side of the jail.
A fellow escapee was not as lucky, the sheets ripped on his way down causing him to plummet 50 feet to his death.
Kindler remained on the lame for more than two years until he was featured on the television show, America's Most Wanted.
Several viewers recognized Kindler and notified Canadian authorities who arrested him and sent him back to the United States.
Now once back in Pennsylvania State Court, Kindler filed a motion to reinstate his post verdict challenges, but the state courts would have none of it.
They applied what is known as the Fugitive Forfeiture Rule and held that Kindler had forfeited his challenges by escaping from prison.
Kindler then filed this Federal Habeas Corpus petition to get his claims heard despite the state rule.
Now there is something called the Adequate State Ground Doctrine under which a Federal Habeas Court will not review the claim that has been rejected by a state court on the basis of the state law ground.
The state law ground however has to be independent of the federal claim and adequate to support the judgment.
The Federal District Court here granted Kindler's Habeas petition, determining that the state Fugitive Forfeiture Rule did not provide an adequate basis to bar Kindler's Habeas claims.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
Pennsylvania filed a petition for review in this Court.
It argued that the Third Circuit had held the Fugitive Forfeiture Rule automatically inadequate simply because the state courts had discretion in applying it.
In an opinion filed today with the clerk, we hold that a state procedural rule is not automatically inadequate under the Adequate State Ground Doctrine just because the state rule is discretionary rather than mandatory.
A discretionary state rule can serve as an adequate ground to bar Federal Habeas review even if the appropriate exercise of discretion permits consideration of a federal claim in some cases, but not others.
A contrary holding would pose an unnecessary dilemma for the states.
States could preserve flexibility in their rules by granting courts discretion to excuse procedural errors, but only at the cost of undermining the finality of state court judgments or states could preserve the finality of their judgments by withholding such discretion, but only at the cost of precluding any flexibility in applying the rules.
Now a number of the states participating as amici curiae before this Court have told us that if forced to choose, they would opt for mandatory rules to avoid the high costs that come with plenary federal review.
That would be very unfortunate because the discretionary rules are often desirable.
The result would be particularly unfortunate for criminal defendants who would lose the opportunity to argue that a procedural default should be excused through the exercise of judicial discretion.
Both state and federal systems grant broad discretion to the trial judge in many cases.
In light of the principles of federalism that underlie the Adequate State Ground Doctrine in the first place, it would seem particularly strange to disregard state procedural rules that are substantially similar to those to which we give full force in our own courts.
Accordingly we vacate the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
All members of the Court join the opinion of the Court except Justice Alito who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Justice Kennedy has filed the concurring opinion in which Justice Thomas has joined.