Supreme Court Gives Second Chance to Condemned Missouri Inmate

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Prison Beard Ban Tossed as Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights.

WASHINGTON – The U.S. WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that lower courts should take another look at an appeal from a Missouri man on death row for killing a woman and her two children 16 years ago.WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave a second chance to a condemned Missouri inmate whose attorneys missed a key deadline, reviving Mark Christeson ’s efforts to overturn his death sentence for a 1998 murder.A unanimous Supreme Court ruling has invalidated an Arkansas state prison rule that barred inmates from growing beards measuring more than a quarter of an inch long. The justices said inmate Mark Christeson should get a chance to argue that his court-appointed attorneys were ineffective because they missed a 2005 deadline to appeal his conviction in federal court.

Supreme Court said a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas has a legal right to grow a half-inch beard, backing religious rights and rejecting the state’s contention that facial hair would pose a security risk. Christeson should be able to argue in the lower courts that he can pursue his appeals even though prior lawyers missed the filing deadline by 117 days. Alito Jr., writing for the court, said Arkansas prison officials had violated a federal law passed to protect religious practices from policies set by state and local officials.

The justices unanimously ruled that the state’s no-beard policy violated a 2000 federal law that requires prison officials to accommodate the religious practices of inmates when feasible. Alito said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act does not require a prison to grant religious exemptions simply because a prisoner asks or because other prisons do. A group of attorneys argued that Christeson’s court-appointed lawyers, Phil Horwitz and Eric Butts, should be replaced due to a conflict of interest because they would not admit their own ineffectiveness. Holt — who is also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad — had argued in a handwritten plea to the court that the state’s refusal to grant exceptions was oppressive and forced inmates “to either obey their religious beliefs and face disciplinary action on the one hand, or violate those beliefs in order to acquiesce” to the grooming policy.

In its last term, the justices allowed family-owned businesses with religious objections to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives, and they upheld prayers at municipal government meetings. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a one-paragraph concurrence to point out what she deemed the difference between Holt’s beard and the more intrusive health insurance exemption sought and won by Hobby Lobby and other businesses. “Unlike the exemption this court approved (in Hobby Lobby), accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief,” she said.

But Arkansas corrections officials allow beards only for dermatological conditions — not religious beliefs — and even then they must be trimmed to one-quarter inch. Holt, who did time for making a threat against President Bush’s daughters before being convicted in 2010 of knifing his girlfriend, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010. Lower courts had ruled that deference to prison officials required them to uphold Arkansas’ restrictions, even though a magistrate said it was “preposterous” to believe that contraband could be hidden in a short beard. The issue before the court was Arkansas’ requirement that prisoners be clean-shaven, unless they have a medical reason for keeping a quarter-inch beard.

While more than 40 state prison systems allow beards in general, Gregory Holt had agreed to keep his to a half-inch — virtually negating the chance he could hide weapons or contraband in it. The federal law said a substantial limit on a prisoner’s exercise of religion can be justified only if it is the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest. Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1⁄2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head,” Alito said.

According to court records, Christeson, then 18, and his 17-year-old cousin, Jesse Carter, had planned to run away from a home outside Vichy in central Missouri where they were living with a relative. The state, in legal papers, has argued that “simple attorney confusion about the due date of the petition is insufficient” to justify extending the deadline so that Mr. His attorneys have argued his trial attorney didn’t provide an adequate mitigating argument at the sentencing phase, particularly regarding abuse he suffered as a child. “Mark’s horrific life circumstances were not presented to his jury.

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