NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 77, Number 3

June 2002

The Politics of Fear and Death: Successive Problems in Capital Federal Habeas Corpus Cases

Bryan A. Stevenson

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), enacted by Congress in 1996 in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, curtailed habeas corpus review in numerous respects, including establishing severe restrictions on prisoners’ ability to file successive federal habeas corpus petitions. In this Article, Professor Bryan Stevenson examines the origins, nature, and effects of these expanded restrictions on successive filings. In reviewing the history of the legal system’s treatment of successive petitions, Stevenson demonstrates that the Supreme Court’s and Congress’s choices in this area were shaped not only by doctrinal considerations but also political variables and unexamined assumptions about prisoners and their lawyers. Stevenson uses actual examples to illustrate the apparently unintended consequences of AEDPA’s successive petition provisions, including the foreclosure of certain types of constitutional claims and the injection of numerous procedural complexities that undermine reliability and fairness. The Article identifies a variety of potential remedies, including congressional reform, liberal judicial interpretation of the statute’s provisions, expanded use of the Supreme Court’s original habeas corpus jurisdiction, and alternative procedural devices like Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) and expanded successive state postconviction review. Stevenson concludes that these devices are a necessary part of a much larger process of rethinking America’s flawed capital punishment system.