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Monday, April 11, 2011

Actual Innocence and Habeas Corpus: In re Troy Davis

Charles Doyle
Senior Specialist in American Public Law

In re Davis presented the Supreme Court with another opportunity to decide whether a state death row inmate, who on the basis of newly available evidence establishes that he is actually innocent, is entitled to habeas corpus relief to prevent his execution. Under existing law, newly discovered evidence of innocence may permit a federal court to consider an inmate’s claim (otherwise barred) that his conviction or sentence was the product of constitutional error (constitutional error plus innocence). The Court has never held that a freestanding claim of innocence may alone suffice. On two occasions, in Herrera and in House, however, it has said that, assuming for argument the right to consideration of a freestanding claim, the evidence on the record in the cases before it did not satisfy the level of persuasion necessary for such relief.

Davis, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a moonlighting police officer, had to overcome several obstacles before habeas relief could be granted. First, the Court would have to recognize the right to relief based solely on a claim of innocence. Then, it would have to identify the level of persuasion required for relief on that basis (i.e., how compelling must proof of innocence be?). Then, the evidence (new and old) would have to satisfy that standard. Before those issues could be reached, however, Davis had to overcome the statutory bar on claims previously rejected in state court (second or successive petition bar). In an effort to do so, Davis filed his habeas petition with the Supreme Court rather than with a lower federal court.

The Court transferred Davis’s “original” petition to a federal district court with instructions to receive evidence and make findings of fact relating to Davis’s claim of innocence. Justice Scalia, in dissent, described as a fool’s errand sending the district court on search for evidence of innocence when the statutory bar would preclude relief regardless of the result of the search. Justice Stevens disagreed in a separate concurring opinion. He argued that the district court might conclude either that the statutory bar does not apply to original petitions; or does not apply in the same manner; or does not apply because the bar is constitutionally invalid in cases of actual innocence.

The District Court conducted an extensive examination of the evidence and concluded that (1) the Eighth Amendment precludes execution of the actually innocent; (2) the clear and convincing evidence standard is the appropriate standard by which to judge such claims; and (3) Davis failed to satisfy the standard. Both the District and Circuit Court concluded any appeal must be to the Supreme Court.

On March 28, 2011, the Supreme Court declined to review the lower court opinion and denied petitions for writs of certiorari and habeas corpus, leaving for another day the broader issues raised in Davis.

Related CRS Reports include CRS Report R41011, Habeas Corpus Legislation in the 111
th Congress, by Charles Doyle (includes a discussion of “actual innocent” proposals); CRS Report RL33391, Federal Habeas Corpus: A Brief Legal Overview; and CRS Report RS22432, Federal Habeas Corpus: An Abridged Sketch.

Date of Report: April 4, 2011
Number of Pages: 15
Order Number: R41010
Price: $29.95

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