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Recusal question occupies 7th Circuit in District Court’s dismissal of habeas petition

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Although a prisoner filed his habeas petition late, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the District Court should not have dismissed it on procedural grounds.

The 7th Circuit vacated the dismissal of Anthony Weddington’s petition and remanded to the court for further proceedings in Anthony Weddington v. Dushan Zatecky, Superintendent, 11-3303.

The court spends considerable time in its opinion mulling over whether or not Judge Tanya Walton Pratt of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division, should have recused herself from the hearing on Weddington’s petition.

Weddington was charged in 2002 with four counts of rape, four counts of criminal deviate conduct, and two counts of criminal confinement. The charges were severed into two separate trials.

Pratt, then a Marion Superior Court Judge, presided over the first trial in September 2003. Weddington was convicted and Pratt sentenced him to 73 years.

The second trial in 2005 also resulted in a conviction. Six years later, Weddington filed a pro se habeas petition under 28 U.S. Code 2254, challenging his 2005 conviction. He claims the trial court erred in denying a motion to suppress all evidence from a January 2002 traffic stop.

Weddington argued that the one-year limit on filing should not apply to his petition or bar it because, while he was in prison, his legal paper work, law books and legal mail were all confiscated and withheld from him.

When Weddington’s petition arrived in federal court, Pratt was sitting on the bench. She denied his petition, finding Weddington was barred by the statute of limitations.  

In examining Pratt’s participation, the 7th Circuit notes although Weddington was challenging the 2005 conviction, the criminal charges were closely related to the 2003 case.

“Review of the habeas petition on the merits may require Judge Pratt to review the 2005 proceedings with respect to a suppression motion aimed at the same stop and search as the one involved in the suppression motion on which she ruled in the 2003 case,” the court wrote. “In our view, this could seriously affect the fairness and public reputation of the judicial proceedings and create an appearance of impropriety.”

However, the court remanded the case for different reasons. Specifically, it ruled the District Court erred in failing to consider whether the limitation period was equitably tolled by the state’s alleged confiscation of Weddington’s legal papers.

The 7th Circuit noted the appearance of bias can be remedied by assignment of a different District judge on remand.



 
 

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