Timeliness Required When Seeking Federal Relief for Sex Crimes Charges in Wisconsin

By Reddin & Singer


When individuals are convicted of serious sex crimes in state courts, they can appeal their convictions through multiple state and federal channels. While state procedures are governed by state law, federal procedures govern the process of applying for a writ of habeas corpus (or an application for relief) from a federal court. The law that governs this process is known as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). Under AEDPA, while federal channels are available to criminal defendants, they must exhaust the necessary state procedures first. Once those state procedures are completed, the clock then begins to run on the time for a defendant to appeal to the federal courts. A recent case out of Wisconsin looks at what happens when federal defendants fail to meet those timelines.

In Carpenter v. Douma, Mr. Carpenter was convicted by a Milwaukee jury of first-degree and second-degree sexual assault. He was sentenced to 59 years in prison with an additional 24 years of supervision. He appealed his conviction, but it was affirmed on appeal, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied further review. After making various additional petitions for relief to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Mr. Carpenter attempted to file a writ of habeas corpus with the Eastern District of Wisconsin federal court in July 2014. However, the district court rejected his writ as untimely. Mr. Carpenter appealed.

Under AEDPA, criminal defendants have one year after their criminal judgment becomes final to seek relief from the federal courts. The statute of limitations begins to run on the date that the judgment becomes final in state court. A judgment typically becomes final when a criminal defendant has exhausted opportunities for appeal. Here, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that Mr. Carpenter’s statute of limitations initially began to run on February 23, 2012, when his petition for a writ of review from the Wisconsin Supreme Court was denied. The one-year period was then tolled in October 2012, when Mr. Carpenter filed an additional writ with the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. On August 1, 2013, that petition was denied, and Mr. Carpenter’s clock began to run again. However, Mr. Carpenter didn’t file his petition in the federal courts until July 2014, well after the one-year statute of limitations expired.

On appeal, Mr. Carpenter argued that he should be granted an exception to the tolling period because he had been pursuing his rights diligently, and extraordinary circumstances prevented his timely filing. This is known as equitable tolling. Equitable tolling applies only in exceptional circumstances. Here, the Court of Appeals disagreed with Mr. Carpenter and found that equitable tolling did not apply to his situation. First, it noted that diligence required alerting courts and attorneys that the timeline was about to expire or filing a pro se request to the court while seeking legal assistance. Here, Mr. Carpenter did not do these things and expressly ignored warnings from the courts that his time for a federal habeas petition was likely to expire, and he needed to file one in order to preserve his rights. This delay in the face of instructions from the courts was held not to be reasonable diligence.

Additionally, the Seventh Circuit also determined that Mr. Carpenter had not been subjected to extraordinary circumstances. Mr. Carpenter argued that he lacked legal training and appointed counsel and that he was dealing with ongoing physical and mental health issues during the proceedings. The Seventh Circuit rejected these arguments, noting that they were typical of inmates in prison and thus did not constitute “extraordinary” situations. While the Seventh Circuit noted that significant mental health issues or mental incompetence can constitute grounds for equitable tolling, Mr. Carpenter had not elaborated on, or provided evidence of, the mental health issues he faced and had not met his burden of proof.

AEDPA is a notoriously complex federal law that imposes very important restrictions on criminal defendants seeking relief from federal courts. If you are a Wisconsin criminal defendant who has exhausted your options in state court, and you would like to reach out to the federal courts, it is important that you carefully monitor AEDPA’s deadlines and restrictions. If you need to speak with an experienced sex crime attorney in Milwaukee, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at (414) 271-6400.