The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) is one of many pieces of “get tough on crime” legislation that Congress passed to favor prosecutors at the expense of the accused and the unjustly convicted. Sold as “reform” legislation to cure a nonexistent problem, the AEDPA hampers the ability of wrongfully convicted defendants, and those who were convicted after unfair trials, to regain their freedom.

The AEDPA was enacted in response to complaints that the writ of habeas corpus was being abused by prisoners who filed multiple petitions challenging their convictions on frivolous grounds, often years after their convictions became final. To the extent that those complaints had any merit at all, the extra work imposed on prosecutors and judges was offset by the opportunity for prisoners to raise legitimate challenges that they did not know about at the time they pursued an appeal.

AEDPA Restricts Appeal Process

The AEDPA “reformed” habeas corpus by limiting its effectiveness. The most troubling procedural changes require a prisoner to raise all claims in one collateral attack (in the form of a 2255 motion for federal prisoners or a 2254 motion for state prisoners) and to file that challenge within a year after the prisoner’s conviction became final. With very limited exceptions, the AEDPA prohibits “successive” collateral attacks.

In other words, Congress intended to give prisoners one and only one chance to raise a collateral challenge in federal court. Prisoners who want to file a successive challenge may do so only with the permission of a federal appellate court.

The one year statute of limitations for filing a collateral attack met with well-deserved criticism. Prisoners do not always have the resources to mount an effective challenge within the one year limitations period. They often do not learn that they have grounds for a collateral attack until after the year has expired.

It takes time to investigate the facts, research the law, and draft an effective challenge. The AEDPA makes it almost impossible for prisoners to take on that task without help from an experienced post-conviction attorney.

The AEDPA also narrowed the grounds for relief that are available under habeas corpus. Although a challenge can still be based on the violation of a constitutional right that resulted in an unfair trial or sentence, the other grounds on which a collateral attack can be based are limited by the AEDPA. In particular, the AEDPA substantially limits the circumstances under which a change in the law that favors a defendant can be used as the basis for a collateral challenge to a conviction.  Review of state convictions is further hampered by the AEDPA’s limitation of federal reconsideration of facts (and, to some degree, legal issues) that were decided by a state court.

In addition to the “reforms” noted above, the AEDPA’s attempt to create an “effective death penalty” included the addition of a six month limitations period in death penalty cases. Congress apparently believed that an “effective” death penalty is one that results in faster executions, increasing the likelihood that an innocent defendant will be put to death.

Responding to complaints about the harshness of the law, Congress also “encouraged” (but did not require) states to appoint attorneys for death row defendants who want to make a collateral challenge to their convictions in federal court.

Consult A Defense Attorney Today

The AEDPA makes the successful pursuit of a collateral challenge to a state or federal conviction nearly impossible for prisoners who are not represented by skilled attorneys who can navigate the minefield of obstacles that the AEDPA created. The post-conviction attorneys at Hamilton Grant understand the AEDPA and have years of experience helping state and federal prisoners make collateral challenges to their unjust convictions.