Christeson v. Roper

PETITIONER: Mark A. Christeson
RESPONDENT: Don Roper, Warden
LOCATION: Circuit Court of Vernon County

DOCKET NO.: 14-6873
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 574 US (2015)
GRANTED: Jan 20, 2015
DECIDED: Jan 20, 2015

Facts of the case

In 1999, a jury convicted Mark Christeson of capital murder for invading the home of a mother and her two children, raping the mother, and then cutting their throats and pushing them into the pond. The jury sentenced Christeson to death. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Missouri affirmed the conviction, which meant that Christeson's federal habeas petition was due on April 10, 2005. Nine months before the deadline, the Court appointed attorneys Phil Horwitz and Eric Butts to represent Christeson. Horwitz and Butts failed to meet with Christeson until six weeks after the petition was due, and they filed the petition 117 days late. The federal district court dismissed the petition as untimely. Seven years later, Horwitz and Butts contacted attorneys Jennifer Merrigan and Joseph Perkovich to discuss Christeson's case. Merrigan and Perkovich discovered Christeson's only chance would be to reopen the final judgment on the grounds that the statute of limitation should not have been enforced in this case. Horwitz and Butts, knowing this would ruin their reputations, refused to let outside counsel access their files. Merrigan and Perkovich moved for substitution of counsel, which the district court denied because they were from out of state and because Horwitz and Butts had not abandoned their client. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed.


(1) Does an actual conflict of interest meet the "interests of justice" standard and require the appointment of conflict-free counsel?

(2) Should the appointed counsel that procedurally defaulted the client's federal habeas application through an untimely filing of the petition continue their court appointment and determine the existence of pleas regarding their own abandonment and/or misconduct?