The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane
Presently before the Court is Petitioner Shonda Dee Walter's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and for appointment of federal habeas corpus counsel. (Doc. 1.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion (Doc. 1) will be granted.
Petitioner is a state prisoner who has been sentenced to death following her 2005 convictions for first-degree murder and felony theft in the Court of Common Pleas of Clinton County. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Petitioner's convictions and death sentence. Commonwealth v. Walter, 966 A.2d 560 (Pa. 2009), reargument denied, No. 479 CAP (March 20, 2009). Petitioner's timely petition for writ of certiorari was denied. Walter v. Pennsylvania, 175 L.Ed. 2d 522, 2009 U.S. Lexis 8645, No. 09-6518, WL 2969899 (U.S. November 30, 2009).
To date, Petitioner has not filed a petition for collateral relief under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 9541 et seq. However, the Offices of the Federal Community Defender for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the Federal Public Defender for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Capital Habeas Units have filed the instant motion seeking a grant to proceed in forma pauperis and the appointment of counsel for the filing of a federal habeas corpus petition.
Petitioner wishes to file a counseled petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254, challenging the constitutionality of her convictions and sentence. Consequently, Petitioner is seeking appointment of counsel pursuant to McFarland v. Scott, 512 U.S. 849 (1994) and 18 U.S.C. § 3599(a)(2) (formerly 21 U.S.C. § 848(q)(4)(B)). Section 3599(a)(2), 18 U.S.C. provides, in relevant part,
In any post conviction proceeding under section 2254 or 2255 of Title 28, United States Code, seeking to vacate or set aside a death sentence, any defendant who is or becomes financially unable to obtain adequate representation or investigative, expert, or other reasonably necessary services shall be entitled to the appointment of one or more attorneys and the furnishing of such other services in accordance with subsections (b) through (f) [(relating to conditions of appointment)].
In McFarland, the United States Supreme Court construed this statutory right to counsel to include the right to legal counsel prior to the filing of a formal federal habeas corpus petition and held that "a 'post conviction proceeding' within the meaning of [§ 3599(a)(2)] is commenced by the filing of a death row defendant's motion requesting the appointment of counsel for his federal habeas corpus proceeding." McFarland, 512 U.S. at 856-57. Accordingly, once an indigent capital defendant files a motion requesting appointment of counsel, as petitioner has done in this case, she is granted "a mandatory right to qualified legal counsel." Id. at 854. This right to counsel "necessarily includes a right for that counsel meaningfully to research and present a defendant's habeas claims." Id. at 858. The Supreme Court cautioned that "[w]here this opportunity is not afforded, '[a]pproving the execution of a defendant before his [petition] is decided on the merits would clearly be improper.'" Id. (quoting Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 889 (1983).
Respondents rely on Harbison v. Bell, 129 S.Ct. 1481, 173 L.Ed.2d 347, (2009) to support their opposition to appointment of counsel. In Harbison, the Supreme Court addressed whether § 3599(e)'s appointment of federal counsel's representation extended to state clemency proceedings. The instant case is dealing with appointment of counsel for federal habeas corpus relief, not state clemency proceedings.
Therefore, Respondent's reliance on Harbison is misplaced.
Furthermore, Petitioner's motion seeks grant of in forma pauperis status and appointment of federal counsel and involves no issues on which the state Respondent has standing. See Death Row Prisoners of ...