Death row appeal denied

Court says deadline wasn't met


By DIANE JENNINGS / The Dallas Morning News

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday denied death row inmate Cesar Fierro's bid to have his case reconsidered because his attorneys failed to meet filing deadlines.

Mr. Fierro's attorneys had hoped the ruling would allow them to have Mr. Fierro's case reviewed again by appeals courts. Mr. Fierro, one of the longest serving inmates on death row, was convicted of killing El Paso cabdriver Nicolas Castanonin 1979.

Since his conviction, courts have determined that Mr. Fierro's confession was coerced. The prosecutor in the case, now a defense attorney, has said he would never have taken the case to court had he known Mr. Fierro's parents were being detained and possibly threatened by Mexican officials after he was arrested.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1996 ruled that while the confession was coerced, the error was harmless, and overturned a lower court's decision that he deserved a new trial.

Under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Mr. Fierro had one year to file a new claim. His attorneys say they met the agreed court deadline; prosecutors say they did not and that the case should not be heard.

The 5th Circuit panel ruled that attorneys did not meet the one-year deadline established under the 1996 Anti- Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was passed to streamline the death penalty appeals process. Supporters say the act eliminates unnecessary delays; critics contend that it keeps legitimate claims from being heard in court.

Mr. Fierro's attorney, David Dow, said the panel's decision "seems quite unjust, particularly in a case where every court has acknowledged that Fierro's conviction rests on a coerced confession."

A spokesman for the El Paso district attorney's office said prosecutors had not had a chance to read the decision and declined to comment. The Texas attorney general's office could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Dow said he intends to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question of the definition of deadlines under the act has cropped up repeatedly since the law took effect.