Alabama prisoners doing hard time now have a better shot at a second chance for freedom, following a split 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision that widens the time limit for those who can show strong proof of their innocence.
Our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers, who also handle post-conviction relief actions, including appeals and federal petitions for writs of habeas corpus, were pleased to hear the outcome of McQuiggin v. Perkins, particularly as it was fiercely opposed by some of the more conservative judges on the court.
However, it’s important to note that this will not blow open the prison doors for large numbers of individuals. Rather, it involves the “rare exception,” specifically cases where a defendant is able to prove to a judge that there is evidence of “actual innocence.” That is a high threshold of proof, as it involves making a convincing argument that had the new evidence been previously available, no reasonable juror would have moved to convict.
This standard had existed before, but what this most recent ruling did was say that in cases where actual innocence can be proven, the one-year deadline for filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus can be relaxed.
That one-year deadline didn’t come about until 1996, with the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. It requires state prisoners to file their petition either one year from the date when the judgment became final OR from the date on which the factual predicate of the claim could have been discovered through due diligence. The general idea was to slow the flood of petitions lacking any real merit that were clogging the federal court system.
However, the court found that to deny a prisoner a shot at freedom in the face of undeniably strong evidence of innocence would be a potential miscarriage of justice – no matter how much time had passed.
Generally, these will be cases in which innocence is proven through DNA evidence or some other strong, virtually irrefutable proof.
Interestingly, it’s possible that not even the prisoner in the underlying case will have evidence that strong.
His case involved a homicide. He and two other men left a party together. One of those three men was murdered soon after. The defendant blamed the other man. The other man blamed him. The defendant was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
He filed his petition following the discovery of three affidavits, filed in 2002, of witnesses who implicate the other man as the killer.
The biggest issue in the case was whether this defendant even had the right to have his petition heard because it had been several years since those affidavits were filed, and there was no good reason, the court determined, why the defendant had not filed his petition sooner.
The Supreme Court is now saying that time limit doesn’t necessarily matter, as long as the underlying evidence can prove innocence.
The question now is whether those three affidavits would have been enough to undeniably sway the jury, back when the case was first being tried. That’s a tough call, but it may turn out in this case not to be enough.
Every case is going to be different.