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The one-year limitations period for the filing of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus begins running once the U.S. Supreme Court has denied certiorari, or the time for seeking certiorari has expired, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Wednesday. In its ruling, the 2nd Circuit became the latest court to adopt the most expansive reading on time limitations imposed on the filing of habeas petitions by Congress in the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). The court, in upholding the dismissal of a convicted murderer’s habeas petition in Williams v. Artuz, also found that a New York State Supreme Court justice’s decision to lock his courtroom’s doors during the testimony of a key witness did not violate the prisoner’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial. The incident forming the basis for James Williams’ petition came on Jan. 28, 1991, when the sole witness who could connect him to a murder, Nicole Powell, was called to testify for the State. Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Allen G. Alpert, who had already been dealing with unruly spectators, became frustrated that the attention of the jury was being “consistently distracted” by members of the public who were leaving and entering the courtroom. Alpert instructed the court officers to lock the doors until Powell’s testimony was completed. Williams was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to serve 25 years to life. After his state appeals failed, Williams’ petition for a writ of certiorari was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 21, 1996. When he filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus on Oct. 17, 1997, the State argued that the petition was untimely. Joining the ranks of judges who have rejected a restrictive interpretation of the AEDPA, one that starts the clock running after a prisoner’s state appeals have been exhausted, U.S. District Judge Allen G. Schwartz of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Williams’ petition was timely because it was filed just under one year after certiorari was denied. However, Schwartz dismissed as meritless Williams’ claim that he was denied a public trial. AEDPA’S ‘DIRECT REVIEW’ On the appeal to the 2nd Circuit, Senior Judge Ralph K. Winter said the event that sets the limitations period running is the completion of “direct review” as outlined in the AEDPA, 28 U.S.C. Section 2244(d)(1)(A). The judge wrote, “The circuits that have addressed this precise issue as well as several district courts in this circuit have held that ‘direct review,’ as used in Section 2244(d)(1)(A), includes direct review by the United States Supreme Court … . We agree and conclude that [Williams'] petition was timely.” Addressing a second limitation raised on habeas petitions by the AEDPA, Winter said that Williams had to show that the closing of the courtroom was contrary to clearly established federal law as interpreted by the Supreme Court or that it involved an unreasonable application of that law. First, he said, the law on courtroom closure under the Sixth Amendment was “clearly established” at the time of trial. Second, Winter said the court could not say that the trial judge’s decision was “clearly contrary” to the Supreme Court’s courtroom closure ruling in Waller v. Georgia, 467 U.S. 39 (1984). “Preventing juror distraction,” he said, “qualifies as an ample justification to limit courtroom entry and exit to times before testimony begins and during breaks.” “Hearing and absorbing the testimony of witnesses and assessing their credibility is at the core of the jury’s function,” he said. “Fact finding is simply not done well in the presence of distracting conduct, and trial judges have a responsibility to minimize the effect of such conduct.” And although Waller requires courts to “consider reasonable alternatives” to closure, Winter said, “There simply were no reasonable alternatives available” to Justice Alpert. Jonathan C. Scott of Scott & Scott represented. Williams. Assistant District Attorneys Michael S. Morgan and Morrie I. Kleinbart represented the State.

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