SCOTUS Finds that Pennsylvania’s Fugitive Disentitlement Rule is a Valid State Procedural Default Rule

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court decided Beard v. Kindler , Supreme Court No. 08-992. Chief Justice Roberts authored the opinion of the Court; Justice Kennedy concurred, joined by Justice Thomas.  Justice Alito (formerly from the Third Circuit) took no part in this case.
The case involved the fugitive disentitlement rule and whether Pennsylvania’s enforcement of this discretionary rule constitutes an independent and adequate state ground. Mr. Kindler was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. He escaped from prison in Pennsylvania and fled to Canada. He remained there for a number of years. Prior to his escape, Mr. Kindler filed a petition for post-conviction relief. That petition was dismissed based on Mr. Kindler’s fugitive status.
In
Kindler v. Canada,* the Canadian Supreme Court permitted Mr. Kindler to be returned to the United States to face the death penalty (despite the Canadian prohibition on the death penalty). Mr. Kindler escaped from the Canadian holding facility and remained free for an additional two years.
When Mr. Kindler was ultimately returned to the United States he unsuccessfully sought to reinstate his post-conviction petition. Under Pennsylvania law, the judge had discretion to permit such a reinstatement, but refused to exercise this discretion in the Defendant’s favor. The Third Circuit found that the Pennsylvania rule was not firmly and regularly enforced and therefore not entitled to respect by the federal courts. The United States Supreme Court reversed. The Could held that a state procedural rule is not automatically “inadequate” — for purposes of the federal rule excusing habeas petitioners from having failed to comply with it — simply because the rule is discretionary.
The lingering question which
Kindler did not put to rest is whether an irregularly enforced procedural default is still an exception to “cause and prejudice” for habeas corpus cases. There is hardly a better case for waiver than in Kindler. How narrowly the case will be read remains to be seen.
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*In 2001, the Canadian Supreme Court overturned Kindler in United States v. Burns and stopped the practice of returning Americans to face the death penalty.