7th Circuit reverses laches dismissal of PCR case

August 27, 2018

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a convicted killer’s habeas petition Monday, vacating a decision in the first Indiana case involving a laches dismissal stemming from a defendant’s post-filing delay in prosecuting a state court post-conviction case.

An Indiana jury convicted Jay Thompson of murder and conspiracy to commit burglary in 1982 on the theory that Thompson and a friend stabbed a couple to death during a house break-in. Thompson initially was sentenced to death but later was resentenced to an aggregate 120 years’ imprisonment, affirmed by the Indiana Supreme Court.

Between August 1992 and 2014, Thompson filed several amended post-conviction relief petitions that continued to languish, bouncing between several public defenders, two private attorneys and pro se appeals.  

When the Indiana Supreme Court denied his motion to transfer, Thompson turned to federal court with this petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, arguing claims raised in his original and first amended state petitions — that his trial attorney was ineffective and that his conviction violates the protection against double jeopardy.

The state moved to dismiss the federal case, arguing that Thompson’s claims were procedurally defaulted because the laches doctrine is an adequate and independent state-law ground of decision that bars the district court from reviewing the merits of any federal claim. The district court agreed, concluding that laches was a firmly established and regularly followed rule in Indiana. However, the court did not address the potential distinction between laches based on a prefiling delay and laches based on a post filing delay in prosecuting an action.

The 7th Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s decision, concluding that Thompson had made a substantial showing that his rights to effective assistance of counsel and against double jeopardy were indeed violated.

The high court posed the question: “whether the rule that laches applies to a petitioner’s delay in prosecuting an already-pending postconviction petition — as distinct from a delay in initially filing the petition — was firmly established and regularly followed in Indiana” when Thompson’s state petition was decided.

Agreeing with Thompson, the 7th Circuit found that although the Indiana appellate court’s ruling in his state appeal may have been a reasonable extension of the laches doctrine, it did not reflect “a firmly established and regularly followed state practice at the time it [was] applied.”

“No Indiana case before Thompson’s own appeal involved a laches dismissal stemming from a post-filing delay in prosecuting the postconviction case. Instead, all of the cases on which the state relies involved delays in filing the petition,” Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote for the court Monday.

“Since then, the Indiana appellate court has treated Thompson as the first case to have ‘held that the delay element of laches may be based on an unreasonable delay in prosecuting a post-conviction petition,’” Wood continued. “In other words, Thompson’s own case is the leading case on this form of Indiana laches.”

The 7th Circuit also found that because of the absence of similar cases, Thompson would have had no way of knowing that it was up to him to take some steps in the Indiana courts to move his case along, while the state was ignoring the proceeding. The 7th Circuit noted steps to be taken in that situation would have been unclear.

“While the Indiana court now has clearly stated that the laches doctrine applies to unreasonable post-filing delays, this rule was not firmly established and regularly followed before Thompson’s case,” Wood wrote. “The dismissal of his state case on this procedural ground therefore does not bar federal review.”

Ultimately, the 7th Circuit found that Thompson’s petition “should not have been dismissed on the ground the district court chose.”

Therefore, Jay R. Thompson v. Richard Brown, 17-2085 was vacated and remanded for further proceedings.



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