Supreme Court Lifts Time Limit on Some ‘Actual Innocence’ Appeals

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The United States Supreme Court gave a second chance Tuesday to prisoners who come up with strong new evidence of their innocence, but who have waited too long to file an appeal.  In a 5-4 decision, the justices lifted the one-year time limit for filing such appeals in a federal court.

The deadline for habeas review is set by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. In 1996, Congress set the one-year deadline for state inmates to lodge federal appeals, partly because some prisoners had filed endless appeals that had prevented state officials from carrying out executions.  But on several occasions since then, the court has confronted cases where a prisoner has new evidence that might establish his innocence.  Ginsburg said an inmate may be excused from the time limit when it is “more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence.” Unexplained delay in bringing forward new evidence bears on the determination.

Although the decision dealt only with the procedural rules, it came after two decades in which hundreds of prisoners have been found to be innocent based on new DNA tests. Such new evidence or new statements from old witnesses may run up against the time limit for appeals.  And in those cases, the justices have decided to open the door slightly to permit further appeals. Doing so may prevent a “fundamental miscarriage of justice,” they said.

In 2006, the Supreme Court allowed new appeals for convicted Tennessee murderer Paul House shortly before he was to be executed. Three years later, House was set free when new DNA tests on the victim pointed to an unknown suspect.  On Tuesday, the court cited House’s case and said it helped establish the principle that claims of “actual innocence” sometimes call for relaxing the rules that limit appeals.

The latest case arose when a Michigan prisoner serving a life term for murder came forward with sworn statements from three witnesses who pointed to another man as the killer. But the defendant, Floyd Perkins, had waited five years to reopen his appeal in federal court, well beyond the one-year limit for such claims.  The case raised the question of whether the limit could be lifted when there is a strong showing of actual innocence. “Our answer is a qualified yes,” Ginsburg said. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg in the majority.

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