Thursday, November 22, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court to consider "late" actual innocence proof


An issue before the U.S. Supreme Court involves the late appearance of evidence that may demonstrate a criminal defendant’s innocence. Though many people assume that if evidence were to arise showing that someone was clearly innocent of the crime they were accused of committing, no matter how late, then it would be considered by the court. Perhaps it may come as a surprise to some, this is not always the case. Here is the petition for certiorari granted by the Supreme Court on this issue filed by Floyd Perkins.

The actual issue presented states: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) contains a one-year statute of limitations for filing a habeas petition. In Holland v. Florida, 130 S. Ct. 2549, 2562 (2010), the Supreme Court affirmed that a habeas petitioner is entitled to equitable tolling of that one-year period “only if he shows: (1) that he has been pursuing his rights diligently, and (2) that some extraordinary circumstance stood in his way and prevented timely filing.

Floyd Perkins' petition presents two recurring questions of jurisprudential significance involving equitable tolling under AEDPA that have divided the circuits:
1. Whether there is an actual-innocence exception to the requirement that a petitioner show an extraordinary circumstance that “prevented timely filing” of a habeas petition.
2. If so, whether there is an additional actual- innocence exception to the requirement that a petitioner demonstrate that “he has been pursuing his rights diligently.

As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in 2009, the Supreme Court has never held that “the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

The Supreme Court now has agreed to hear a case that demonstrates exactly why the issue can be a tricky one. The case involves a Michigan man, Floyd Perkins, who is serving a life sentence for murder. New evidence was uncovered and a long time passed before it was presented. The issue now is whether it can be raised or whether Perkins should spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.

The details of the incident begin with a house party in 1993. Perkins was in attendance and left with two other men, one of whom was later found dead in the woods, having been stabbed in the head. The third man, Jones, testified that Perkins murdered him. Perkins said he parted ways with the other two and later ran across his accuser under a streetlight covered in blood. The jury ultimately believed the accuser, voting to convict Perkins.
After his conviction Perkins worked to collect evidence demonstrating his innocence. There was an affidavit from his sister that said she heard secondhand that Jones had bragged about the killing and had taken bloody clothes to a drycleaner. This is hearsay and it is from a relative, both facts undermined the value of the testimony. A few years later Perkins got a second sworn statement from an acquaintance of Jones’ who said Jones confessed to the killing and confirmed the story about the dry cleaning. Then, a few years after that an employee of the dry cleaning store said that a man who looked like Jones had indeed come in to drop off bloody pants to be cleaned.

Finally, with this information gathered, Perkins asked a federal court to throw out his conviction in 2008. Magistrate Judge Timothy P. Greeley of the Federal District Court in Marquette, Michigan recommended that his request be denied because it was filed too late. Perkins appealed but to no avail. Then the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling. It ordered Judge Bell of the Federal District Court in Grand Rapids to consider whether the new evidence was credible enough to justify consideration.

After the Sixth Circuit decision, Michigan appealed to the Supreme Court, and with the support of 10 other states, argued that deadlines are important procedural rules and ought to be enforced as written. They say the legal requirement is that such claims be pursued diligently.

However, Perkins argues that’s exactly what he did. He filed a note with the lower court before the deadline passed explaining that many of his documents and property had been destroyed by prison personnel following a skirmish. He was subsequently denied access to the law library and placed in solitary confinement for nearly five years, making further work on his case all but impossible.

Though the evidence is suggestive, it’s not factually conclusive for Perkins. Had it been presented at trial it may have made a difference, or maybe not. The question is whether there is enough reason to justify Perkins presenting it to a court for consideration now.

Read: “Case Asks When New Evidence Means a New Trial,” by Adam Liptak, published at NYTimes.com.

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