By Kayleigh Butterfield

On March 8, 2016, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case Moses v. Joyner. Moses, a prisoner facing the death penalty, filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) for relief from the district court’s dismissal of his federal habeas petition. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion.

Clean Crime and Messy Procedure

In 1997, a jury convicted Moses of two counts of first-degree murder. Both murders were shootings that were closely tied to illegal drug operations. At sentencing, the court imposed the death penalty. The state supreme court affirmed Moses’ conviction, and his petition to the United States Supreme Court was denied.

Over the next seven years, Moses filed a total of three Motions for Appropriate Relief and a federal habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. All three motions and the habeas petition were denied. In 2011, Moses filed his first motion under Rule 60(b) for the relief from the district court’s dismissal of his federal habeas petition. Treating this as a successive habeas petition, the district court transferred the issue to the Fourth Circuit, which then denied authorization for the successive litigation.

In August of 2014, Moses filed a second motion under Rule 60(b), claiming that the intervening case law in Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler changed the procedural rules barring a federal habeas petition. Both cases essentially stand for the premise that a procedural default under state law will not always bar federal habeas cases from being heard.  The district court held that this new motion was untimely under Rule 60(c), and that the change of law in Martinez and Trevino was not enough to trigger relief under Rule 60(b).

Untimely and Insufficient

The Fourth Circuit first examined whether the district court had abused its discretion by holding Moses’ motion untimely under Rule 60(c). The Fourth Circuit did not find an abuse of discretion, primarily because Moses waited nearly two-and-a-half years after Martinez and fifteen months after Trevino before filing the present motion.

Next, the Fourth Circuit analyzed whether Moses actually met the standards required by Rule 60(b). The Fourth Circuit explained that while the last clause of 60(b) does act as a sort of broad catch-all for relief, the Supreme Court has narrowed that language so that it only applies if one can show “extraordinary circumstances.” Determining that Martinez and Trevino only constituted a procedural inconsistency with prior habeas law, the Fourth Circuit held that such distinctions did not create extraordinary circumstances broad enough to warrant sufficient grounds for Moses’ 60(b) motion.


For the aforementioned reasons, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Moses’ motion under Rule 60(b).