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Justices reduce state inmates' rights to appeal to U.S. courts; Portion of ruling gives death row prisoner in Md. a second chance; Decision clarifies 4-year-old law


WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, splitting widely, cut back sharply yesterday on state prisoners' right to challenge their convictions and sentences in federal court.

In its first detailed ruling on the meaning of a 1996 federal law designed to block many state prisoner cases from getting into federal court, the justices decided by a 5-4 vote that the law put "a new restraint" on federal judges' power to review such cases.

The court, in the main opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, made clear that state courts' decisions in criminal law cases are to be left untouched in federal court if they are "reasonable," even if they apply incorrectly a Supreme Court constitutional decision.

The decision, fracturing the court into three blocs, "gave life to what Congress intended in 1996 -- to severely curtail federal review of state court decisions," said University of Denver law professor Alan K. Chen. "The O'Connor opinion shows an unprecedented amount of deference" to state courts in the criminal law area, Chen said.

Although most of the ruling went against prisoners' chances to take their constitutional complaints to federal judges, one part of it went the other way, which could at least delay a Maryland inmate's execution.

In that part of the decision, the court found that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went too far in its interpretation of the 1996 law in closing federal courthouses to state inmates.

The appeals court, based in Richmond, Va., reviews cases from Maryland and other mid-Atlantic states. It had interpreted Congress' 4-year-old law to mean that no state court ruling in a criminal case could be challenged in federal court unless every "reasonable judge" who read it would consider it to be legally unreasonable.

That added limitation, O'Connor wrote, "was erroneous." Congress, she said, did not intend to require a unanimous view of all judges that a state court acted unreasonably before a state ruling could be challenged in federal court.

That aspect of the decision might affect the case of Eugene Colvin-El, the Maryland inmate who has been expected to be the next executed in the state. He has an appeal pending before the Supreme Court, which had been holding the appeal in an inactive [The decision] "gave life to what Congress intended in 1996 -- to severely curtail federal review of state court decisions."

Alan K. Chen, University of Denver law professor

status until it issued the ruling yesterday.

Because the justices found that the appeals court in Richmond had at least partly misread the 1996 law, it seemed likely to send Colvin-El's case back for another look. The court might indicate as early as Monday what it will do with his appeal.

Colvin-El was sentenced to death for the 1980 stabbing murder of an elderly Florida woman, Lena S. Buchman, who was visiting her daughter in Pikesville.

If the court sends his case back to the Richmond court, it will mean a months-long delay of his execution in Maryland. If the justices deny review of his appeal -- another option open to the high court -- the state would be free to set an execution date for Colvin-El.

The Maryland inmate is not the only one in a position to benefit from the ruling. The court, in the ruling yesterday on the key provisions of the 1996 law and in a separate ruling on a narrow clause within that law, decided that lower federal courts or state courts had made legal errors in the cases of two convicted murderers sentenced to death in Virginia.

For different reasons, one group of four justices and another of two joined to make a 6-3 majority to overturn the death sentence of Terry Williams for killing an elderly man and ordered a new hearing in federal court for Michael Wayne Williams for his role in the murder of a couple.

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