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Relief delayed for prisoners deemed wrongfully convicted

U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson failed for years to rule on a number of eligible habeas corpus petitions. In one case, the prisoner died in the sixth year of the judge's inaction.

August 21, 2011|By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • Omer Harland Gallion waited six years for a federal judge to rule on his habeas corpus petition, and died in prison.
Omer Harland Gallion waited six years for a federal judge to rule on his habeas… (Los Angeles Times )

Justice delayed was justice denied for Omer Harland Gallion. He died in prison in his sixth year of waiting for U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson to act on a decision that he had been wrongfully convicted and should be released or retried.

Anderson took no action until December, when he dismissed the matter as moot after an attorney brought Gallion's death to his attention.

Two other cases in which junior judicial officials found grounds for striking prisoners' felony convictions also languished unattended by Anderson for five and a half and eight years, respectively. Another prisoner who petitioned for relief in 2002 is still waiting for an answer.

Prisoners who appeal to federal judges with claims of wrongful conviction are rarely successful in their quests for relief, known as writs of habeas corpus, "the great writ" that is a hallmark of American justice. Only 1 in 284 petitions is approved, according to a 2006 report by a Vanderbilt University law professor. But ignoring recommendations for relief in the few meritorious cases among the 17,000 or so filed each year raises concern about a judge's objectivity, judicial scholars say.

Anderson declined to discuss the delays. Legal experts say the years-long inaction is highly unusual, even given the complexity of many habeas petitions that raise dozens of issues about the fairness of a prisoner's trial and sentence. Some attribute the delays to the court's staggering caseload and judges' obligation under the Speedy Trial Act to give priority to pending criminal cases. Others question Anderson's objectivity in prisoners' cases and speculate that he may be dismissive of their claims of mistreatment.

The chief judge for the Central District of California defended Anderson, describing the long delays as "extremely unfortunate" but blaming them on the district's huge caseload.

"Judge Anderson is an excellent judge," said Chief Judge Audrey B. Collins. "I have absolutely no reason to believe there was any bias that permeated his handling or played any part whatsoever in this." She noted that the district's 25 active judges carry caseloads that should be spread among at least 36.

Judicial scholars and defense attorneys say Anderson's handling of the habeas cases raises concern and should lead to a misconduct inquiry.

"The delay is what makes this troubling," said Arthur Hellman, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and expert on the federal judiciary. "The delays are unexplained. It certainly raises concerns that are going to persist as long as there's no explanation."

A Times review of Anderson's record found that 565 habeas cases, excluding death row appeals, have been assigned to the judge during his nine years on the bench. He accepted the reviewing magistrate's recommendations to grant relief in two cases assigned early in his tenure and dealt relatively quickly in denying or dismissing the rest of those in which he has issued rulings. That swift dispatch of denials contrasts with the three long-delayed rulings on recommended grants that were brought to public attention last month by the Daily Journal, a legal publication.

"It brings to mind the comment by one of the James Bond characters: 'Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action,' " said Hellman, quoting Ian Fleming's "Goldfinger."

"It's not enough to reach a conclusion but enough to raise concern and enough, in my mind, to raise the desirability of a misconduct inquiry," he said. "The misconduct process doesn't exist just to discipline judges who do unethical things, but also to assure the public that the judiciary cares, as an institution, that individual judges are doing their jobs right without any kind of animus or improper attitudes."

U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski has the authority, as head of the Judicial Council, to make a public inquiry into any concerns about potential misconduct, even without a formal complaint, which would be investigated in secret. Asked if he planned to question Anderson on why he failed to act expeditiously in the three cases, Kozinski said he couldn't comment "on any matter potentially involving judicial discipline."

Sean Kennedy, federal public defender for the Central District, said that none of the cases in which Anderson delayed rulings was represented by lawyers in his office. But he said he was concerned about the judge's handling of the three cases.

"If a district judge promptly accepts every recommendation to deny a habeas petition, but sits for years on the very few recommendations to grant relief, it causes petitioners to question the fairness of the proceedings," said Kennedy, head of the largest public defender agency in the country.

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