Williams v. Secretary — prisoner civil rights — affirmance — McKee
In a major opinion issued today, the Third Circuit held that death row inmates have a due process right not to be housed in solitary confinement, without meaningful review, after a court has vacated their death sentences. The court recognized this right and held that it is clearly established (and thus enforceable in a federal civil rights suit) going forward, but it affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment against the two prisoners who brought these suits because the right was not clearly established until this opinion.
Both plaintiffs originally were sentenced to death, later won sentencing-phase relief, and in the end were re-sentenced to life in prison. Years passed after the courts vacated their death sentences before their resentencings — 6 years for one of them, 8 years for the other — and the prisons kept them in solitary confinement on death row the whole time, without any regular review of their housing status. The two prisoners brought federal civil rights suits, alleging that keeping them in solitary on death row violated their due process liberty interests. In today’s opinion, the court affirmed on qualified immunity grounds but established a precedent that will bar prisons from continuing this appalling practice.
Joining McKee were Fuentes and Roth. Arguing counsel were James Bilsborrow of New York (a former Smith clerk) for the prisoners and John Knorr III of the OAG for the defendants.