St. Mary's Law Journal


Craig M. Jacobs


The notion that the state can punish innocent people disrupts public confidence in the usefulness of the criminal justice system. If, by legislative design, the criminal justice system is not concerned with or is accepting of situations where innocent people are punished by the state, should courts take immediate action? Once criminal defendants exhaust the appellate process, Supreme Court Justices have stated, federal courts should not hear claims of actual innocence. Such statements are supported by the federal habeas corpus statute as amended by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). AEDPA requires federal habeas courts to deny relief unless defendants can show the state’s adjudication of a claim involved unreasonable or contrary application of clearly established federal law. In a procedural sense the Supreme Court has never explicitly held actual innocence to be a valid claim recognized under the Constitution for federal habeas corpus review. This means actual innocence is not recognized in the habeas context. If the writ of habeas corpus is to serve its central purpose, a claim of actual innocence should be a viable claim under federal habeas review. Accepting the incarnation of innocent persons denied an avenue to prove their innocence violates both substantive due process and the Eight Amendment. The statutorily compelled exclusion of actual innocence claims upon federal habeas review is difficult to defend. Especially considering federal habeas courts sit to ensure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution. When couched in terms of available habeas claim to vindicate the wrongly convicted, actual innocence seems worthy of endorsement. To propose that habeas petitioners should be denied review ignores both the Due Process and Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clauses. This subverts the central purpose of the writ of habeas corpus, which is to reverse unconstitutional convictions.


St. Mary's University School of Law