Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.
Oklahoma prisoner Mario Williams is serving a life sentence without parole for first-degree murder. He requested a certificate of appealability for a district court’s dismissal of his 28 U.S. Code 2254 application as untimely. A 10th Circuit Court of Appeals panel out of Muskogee, Oklahoma, denied a certificate of appealability and dismissed this matter.
To obtain a certificate of appealability, Williams was required to make “a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” Because the district court ruled on procedural grounds, he needed to show both “that jurists of reason would find it debatable whether the petition states a valid claim of the denial of a constitutional right and . . . whether the district court was correct in its procedural ruling,” the 10th Circuit opinion noted, citing the decision Slack v. McDaniel. He didn’t show, however, that reasonable jurists would debate whether the district court correctly dismissed the application as untimely, the opinion added.
Williams didn’t dispute the district court’s finding that his conviction became final on Feb. 15, 1996. After the Supreme Court held Congress had never disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation in the decision McGirt v. Oklahoma, Williams filed a state post-conviction petition arguing Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him. The state district court denied the petition, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed. Williams then brought his federal application.
There is a one-year limitation period for filing a 2254 application. The limitations period starts running from whichever comes latest: the date on which the judgment became final by the conclusion of direct review or the expiration of the time for seeking such review; the date on which the impediment to filing an application created by state action in violation of the constitution or laws of the U.S. is removed, if the applicant was prevented from filing by such state action; the date on which the constitutional right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court if the right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review; or the date on which the factual predicate of the claim or claims presented could’ve been discovered through the exercise of due diligence. According to the 10th Circuit opinion, Williams relied upon the second and last subsections.
Regarding the second subsection, Williams argued McGirt removed an impediment to filing his 2254 application. And under the last subsection, he asserted he couldn’t have earlier discovered the facts underlying his claims. Before McGirt, he stated, he didn’t know, and could not have known, his crime took place in Indian country and his victim “was not an African American-(Black), but a Freedman of the Choctaw Indian Tribe.”
According to the 10th Circuit opinion, no reasonable jurist would debate the propriety of the district court’s order based on these contentions. Williams’ principal factual predicate — that Congress hadn’t disestablished an Indian reservation where his crime was committed — could’ve been discovered at any time through due diligence by consulting Congressional records. In fact, even before McGirt, the 10th Circuit recognized that Congress hadn’t disestablished the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation, the opinion noted, citing the 10th Circuit decision Murphy v. Royal. Thus, the opinion added, Williams could’ve made the same argument as the petitioner in McGirt. Similarly, Williams’ other factual predicate – that his victim qualified as an Indian – could’ve been discovered at any time through due diligence.
Williams further contended that because the Oklahoma courts never had jurisdiction, the 2244(d)(1) limitations period didn’t apply. The opinion noted no reasonable jurist would debate the propriety of the district court’s order in light of this contention. Although “[a]bsence of jurisdiction in the convicting court is indeed a basis for federal habeas corpus relief cognizable under the due process clause,” the opinion noted, citing the 10th Circuit decision Yellowbear v. Wyoming Attorney General, due process claims are subject to the limitations period set forth in 2244(d).
Finally, Williams argued that if the district court thought his 2254 application was untimely, it should have dismissed the application during the initial screening process. But because “the timeliness of a § 2254 petition is an affirmative defense,” the opinion noted, citing the 10th Circuit decision Kilgore v. Attorney General of Colorado, no reasonable jurist would debate the district court’s decision to wait and allow the state to raise the issue.
The 10th Circuit denied a certificate of appealability and dismissed the appeal.