E. GRADY JOLLY, Circuit Judge:
In 1980, Cesar Roberto Fierro was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Nicolas Castanon. The conviction was based, in part, on Fierro's written confession. Before trial, Fierro unsuccessfully sought to suppress the confession on the ground that it was obtained by holding his mother in a Mexican jail until he admitted to the murder. After a direct appeal and after two petitions for post-conviction relief, Fierro filed a third post-conviction petition in Texas state court based on evidence that Detective Al Medrano, the El Paso police officer who obtained the confession from Fierro, lied in his testimony during the suppression hearing. The state habeas court found that Medrano had indeed presented materially false testimony, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Fierro's petition because it found the false testimony harmless.
Although the facts of this case have been well documented during the course of the extensive proceedings in state and federal court, some background is required to place the issue before us in context. In 1979, the State of Texas charged petitioner Cesar Roberto Fierro with the murder of Nicolas Castanon, an El Paso taxicab driver, based on the statement of an alleged eyewitness. The eyewitness, Geraldo Olague, told the police that he and Fierro were riding in Castanon's cab when Fierro suddenly shot Castanon in the back of the head. According to Olague, Fierro removed the body from the cab and took Castanon's watch and wallet. Fierro and Olague then drove the cab across the Mexican border and abandoned it in Juarez.
Relying on Olague's statement, El Paso police detective Al Medrano retrieved Fierro from a nearby jail on August 1, 1979 and questioned him. While Fierro was in police custody, he signed a statement in which he confessed to Castanon's murder. Before his trial for capital murder, however, Fierro moved to suppress the statement, arguing that he had confessed involuntarily. According to Fierro's testimony at the suppression hearing, Medrano told Fierro during the interrogation that Mexican police had raided his mother's residence in Juarez that morning and had taken her and Fierro's step-father into custody.
To refute Fierro's testimony, Medrano testified at the suppression hearing that he was unaware of the arrest of Fierro's mother in Juarez when he interrogated Fierro.
In 1994, Fierro retained new counsel and filed a petition for post-conviction relief in state court based on the discovery of new evidence relating to the voluntariness of his 1979 confession.
Based on this evidence, the state habeas trial court found that Medrano's testimony at the 1979 suppression hearing "regarding the nature and extent of cooperation between the El Paso police and the Juarez police in this case" was false and that Medrano "did have information that the Defendant's mother and step-father had been taken into custody by the Juarez police with the intent of holding them in order to coerce a confession from the Defendant." The court concluded "[t]hat there is a strong lik[e]lihood that the Defendant's confession was coerced by the actions of the Juarez police and by the knowledge and acq[u]iescence of those actions b[y] Det. Medrano." The court therefore recommended a new trial.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals adopted the state habeas court's factual findings and agreed that Fierro's "due process rights were violated by Medrano's perjured testimony." Ex parte Fierro, 934 S.W.2d 370, 371-72 (Tex.Cr.App.1996), cert. denied, 521 U.S. 1122, 117 S.Ct. 2517, 138 L.Ed.2d 1019 (1997). A majority of
After an unsuccessful petition for certiorari in the Supreme Court, Fierro filed a motion in this Court on October 20, 1997 seeking a stay of his execution and authorization to file a successive habeas petition. The panel granted the motion on November 11, but Fierro did not file his habeas petition in the district court until February 27, 1998. The district court accepted the state habeas court's findings of fact concerning Medrano's false testimony at the suppression hearing but ultimately dismissed Fierro's petition as barred by the statute of limitations governing successive petitions under the AEDPA. Alternatively, the district court dismissed the petition because the factual predicate for the perjury claim could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence at trial. On May 3, 2001, the district court granted Fierro a Certificate of Appealability on both of these issues.
The sole issue that we address in this appeal is whether Fierro's successive habeas petition is barred by the one-year statute of limitations established under the AEDPA. The state contends that the statute of limitations expired no later than November 28, 1997 and that Fierro's February 27, 1998 petition is therefore untimely. Fierro maintains that his petition was timely for two reasons. First, Fierro argues that he satisfied the AEDPA statute of limitations by filing a motion for authorization in this Court — which included the "essential elements" of his habeas application — within one year of the final judgment on his state petition. Second, Fierro argues that the limitations period should be equitably tolled in this case because "it would be an `indefensible sort of entrapment'" to bar a petition filed in accordance with a scheduling order issued by the district court at the state's request.
Agreeing with the state, the district court dismissed Fierro's petition as barred by the statute of limitations because it found "absolutely nothing that would excuse the untimely filing." We review de novo the district court's dismissal of a habeas petition on procedural grounds. See Emerson v. Johnson, 243 F.3d 931, 932 (5th Cir.2001). We review the district court's denial of equitable tolling for an abuse of discretion. See Molo v. Johnson, 207 F.3d 773, 775 (5th Cir.2000).
The initial question here is whether Fierro has actually met the time requirements of the applicable statute of limitations. Under the AEDPA, state prisoners have one year in which to file petitions for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1). Where a petitioner's state court conviction became final before the enactment of the AEDPA, the one-year statute of limitations begins to run on the date of the AEDPA's enactment — that is, April 24, 1996. See United States v. Flores, 135 F.3d 1000, 1005 (5th Cir.1998). In the present case, Fierro's murder conviction became final in 1986, well before the AEDPA was enacted. Thus, the AEDPA statute of limitations began to run with respect to Fierro's instant petition on April 24, 1996. Because the statute is tolled during the pendency of state court petitions for post-conviction relief, however, the statute did not begin to run on Fierro's petition until November 28, 1997, the date on which the judgment on his state habeas petition became final. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(2). It follows that the one-year limitations period expired on November 28, 1997 and that Fierro's February
Fierro nevertheless contends that his petition is not barred. He argues that his October 20, 1997 motion in this Court for authorization to file a successive habeas petition effectively initiated the federal habeas proceeding and thus satisfied the one-year statute of limitations — notwithstanding that a habeas petition must be filed in the district court, not in the court of appeals. Specifically, Fierro argues that his motion for authorization should be deemed "an application for a writ of habeas corpus" that was filed within one year of the state court judgment because (1) the motion is "indistinguishable" from (and is an "indivisible part of") his habeas petition and (2) the motion gave the state notice of the grounds for the petition. In this regard, Fierro observes that the motion included all of the elements of a habeas petition required by Rule 2(c) of the Rules Governing Section 2254 Cases, including a jurisdictional statement, a statement of facts, a statement of his claims, and legal authority supporting those claims. Because Fierro did not raise this argument in the district court, however, we review only for plain error. See Lackey v. Johnson, 116 F.3d 149, 152 (5th Cir.1997).
Although this issue is one of first impression, both the language of the AEDPA and analogous caselaw compel the conclusion that a motion for authorization to file a successive petition is not itself an "application for a writ of habeas corpus."
Cases addressing whether the AEDPA governs a particular petition have similarly concluded that a habeas case is "pending" only if an actual habeas petition has been filed in the district court. For example, we have held that "the relevant date for determining the applicability of the AEDPA to habeas corpus petitions is the date that the actual habeas corpus petition is filed." Williams v. Cain, 125 F.3d 269, 274 (5th Cir.1997) (emphasis added); see also Nobles v. Johnson, 127 F.3d 409, 413-14 (1997) (same). In reaching this conclusion, we rejected the contention that a motion to stay execution or a motion to
Because Fierro's motion for authorization is merely a preliminary motion that does not itself initiate habeas proceedings, it cannot satisfy the statute of limitations established under the AEDPA. We therefore conclude that the district court did not err, much less plainly err, by holding that Fierro filed his February 1998 habeas petition outside the one-year limitations period.
Fierro next argues that, even assuming his petition was filed outside the statutorily-defined limitations period, the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled because both the parties and the district court initially operated under the assumption that the statute did not bar his petition. Relatedly, Fierro also argues that due process requires the enforcement of the district court's scheduling order, which set the deadline for filing Fierro's petition outside the limitations period, because he relied on that order in filing his petition. The state responds that its request for the scheduling order was not based on the assumption, implicit or explicit, that Fierro's petition was timely. Because Fierro's failure to file his petition within the one-year limitations period was the result of his own legal error, we conclude that Fierro has not demonstrated that the circumstances of this case are sufficiently exceptional to warrant equitable tolling.
In United States v. Patterson, 211 F.3d 927, 931 (5th Cir.2000), we applied equitable tolling because a district court order unintentionally misled the prisoner. In Patterson, the district court granted a pro se prisoner's request to dismiss his petition without prejudice (over the government's objection) so that the prisoner could retain a lawyer. See id. Observing that the prisoner and the district court "apparently were under the mistaken impression" that a later petition would not be time barred, we held that equitable tolling applied because the prisoner relied to his detriment on the district court's decision to dismiss for the express purpose of allowing later refiling.
Applying these principles to the present case, we conclude that equitable tolling is not appropriate because Fierro's failure to file his habeas petition within the applicable limitations period is attributable solely to his mistaken assumption that the statute of limitations did not apply to his petition. The record reflects no other practical or legal reason that would have prevented Fierro from filing his federal petition during the applicable limitations period. As noted above, Fierro appealed the denial of his state habeas petition to the United States Supreme Court. Rather than filing his federal habeas petition concurrently with his Supreme Court appeal, however, Fierro elected to wait until the Supreme Court acted on his petition for certiorari on June 29, 1997. Fierro argues that he believed the one-year statute of limitations established in § 2244(d) did not apply to successive habeas petitions under § 2244(b) or, alternatively, that filing a petition for certiorari tolled the statute of limitations.
As Fierro concedes, neither the state nor the district court made affirmative representations regarding the running of the AEDPA limitations period. Fierro's argument is, in effect, that he is entitled to equitable tolling because his untimely filing was based on an interpretation of the AEDPA statute of limitations that was reasonable at the time, although it later proved to be incorrect. But we have made it clear that a lack of knowledge of the law, however understandable it may be, does not ordinarily justify equitable tolling. See Fisher v. Johnson, 174 F.3d 710, 714 (5th Cir.1999) ("[I]gnorance of the law, even for an incarcerated pro se petitioner, generally does not excuse prompt filing."); see also Felder v. Johnson, 204, F.3d 168, 172 (2000) (same).
This policy has particular force in the present case because Fierro did not file his motion for authorization until nearly four months after the Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari. He then had more than two weeks after we authorized his successive petition in which to transform his motion for authorization into a proper habeas petition.
Fierro argues that equitable tolling is nevertheless warranted here because the district court's scheduling order, issued at the state's request, led him to believe that the AEDPA statute of limitations was not at issue in his case.
Even assuming that the state labored under the same mistaken assumption that the statute of limitations was not an issue with respect to Fierro's petition, however, this argument fails. As noted earlier, the applicable limitations period passed on November 28, 1997 — three weeks before the state requested the scheduling order. Thus, the state's request and the district
We recognize that the application of procedural rules may appear formalistic — particularly in a death penalty case — when applied to bar a facially plausible habeas petition because of an error by habeas counsel. We emphasize, however, that Congress has imposed a strict one-year limitations period for the filing of all habeas petitions under the AEDPA, subject only to the narrowest of exceptions. The petitioner, through his counsel, clearly had notice of this potential bar to his claim for federal relief and yet imprudently failed to abide by the statute. This case simply does not present the sort of rare and exceptional circumstances that would justify equitable tolling.
For the reasons set out above, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court dismissing Fierro's petition for a writ of habeas corpus.