Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Magwood: Unforeseeable Imposition of Death Penalty violates Due Process

In Magwood v. Warden, No. 07-12208 (Dec. 19, 2011), the Court granted habeas relief to an Alabama death row inmate, finding that his death-sentence, imposed for a 1979 murder of a Sheriff, violated the fair warning requirement of the Due Process Clause, because one of the aggravating circumstances that was relied upon was based on an unforeseeable and retroactive judicial expansion of statutory language.

The Court noted that at the time of Magwood’s murder, the murder of a law enforcement officer was not listed as an aggravating circumstance to qualify a person for the death penalty. However, a subsequent Alabama case suggested that this was a valid basis for imposition of the death penalty.

The Court rejected the argument that Magwood had defaulted this argument by failing to raise it in the Alabama courts, finding that because Magwood would be “actually innocent” of the death penalty, his procedural default was excused.

The Court rejected the argument that Due Process did not embody the Ex Post Facto protection against the infliction of greater punishment through the application of unforeseeable judicial interpretation of a law, noting that Magwood would otherwise be subject to the death penalty. The Court found that the Alabama case that interpreted Alabama law to make Magwood qualify for the death penalty was an “unexpected and indefensible construction of narrow and precise statutory language,” and therefore violated Due Process’ fair warning requirement.