Updated May 9, 2016
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.
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 late 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, 742 F.3d 1083 (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-