Habeas Corpus and Innocence

Habeas corpus can provide an avenue for defendants to try to establish their innocence.

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The writ of habeas corpus can serve several functions, but none is more important than its potential to exonerate convicted defendants. Defendants are sometimes able to file petitions for writs of habeas corpus even after their appeals have failed. Though the standard they have to meet in order to establish innocence on habeas review may vary depending on the circumstances, they always face a stiff task.

Defendants may use habeas petitions to argue simple innocence (for example, as shown by newly discovered evidence), or that some problem with the trial (for instance, a lawyer’s incompetence) prevented them from proving their actual innocence. Consider the following example.

Innocent on Review

A 2013 federal case illustrates how a problem underlying a trial can prevent a defendant from proving innocence—and how habeas corpus can save the day. (Of course, no relief can undo the harrowing experience of being imprisoned while innocent.)

In September of 2013, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a defendant was entitled to a new trial in light of previously ignored evidence. (Larsen v. Soto, 10-56118 (9th Cir. 2013).) The defendant’s appeals in state court had failed, so he filed a federal habeas corpus petition, through which he argued that his since-disbarred trial lawyer was deficient. He claimed ineffective assistance of counsel vis-à-vis the lawyer’s failure to prove innocence through readily available evidence. Among other errors, the lawyer didn’t call witnesses who would have established the client’s innocence.

The case involved a 1998 incident at a bar in Los Angeles. Police officers came to the bar in response to a call about fired shots. At trial, an officer testified that, after arriving at the bar parking lot, he saw the defendant throw an object under a car; the object appeared to be consistent with a knife the officer subsequently found in the same area. The defendant was convicted of possession of a deadly weapon, and, due to his criminal record and California’s Three Strikes Law, sentenced to 28 years to life in prison.

At an eventual habeas hearing, the defendant presented credible witnesses who were present at the bar on the night in question. All testified that the knife belonged to someone other than the defendant—in other words, that he was innocent. The judge presiding over the hearing found that the defendant had established his innocence and therefore ordered him released or retried. In what was effectively its only argument, the government countered that the defendant didn’t file his federal habeas petition soon enough. (He hadn’t filed within the prescribed year after a conviction becomes final.)

The Ninth Circuit rebuffed the government and found that the defendant fell into a category of defendants exempted from the one-year filing requirement: those who produce convincing proof of innocence. The court found that an overwhelming weight of evidence pointing to innocence excused his failure to file for habeas relief within the statutory timeframe. (For more on the court's ruling and the government's argument, see Form Over Substance.)

Consult a Lawyer

The foregoing case, like all habeas claims, was extremely intricate and complex. Defendants who want to challenge their convictions are undoubtedly best served to work with an experienced appellate criminal defense attorney. Only such a lawyer can properly analyze a case and guide a defendant through the procedural maze.

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