By Dale Chappell
Author of Federal Habeas Corpus for State Prisoners: An Insider`s Guide
Bracey v. Sup’t. Rockview SCI, 986 F.3d 274 (3d Cir. 2021)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently held that a Pennsylvania State prisoner was allowed to use a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) to reopen his old federal habeas corpus case based on new circuit case law, that would have been granted, had a new change in decisional law been in effect at the time the habeas petition was filed.
When William Bracey found out the prosecutor in his case had withheld favorable evidence from him, he filed for postconviction relief, because such a situation was deemed a constitutional violation by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 83 (1963). But those attempts at relief were denied, the courts relying on binding case law holding that the evidence was publicly available, and Bracey wasn’t “diligent” enough in finding it.
Almost five years later, that case law was overturned, when the Third Circuit held that information which is publicly available still must be turned over by the prosecution to meet the Brady standard. Bracey then filed a motion under Rule 60(b) to reopen his closed federal habeas case based on the new case law, and the Third Circuit agreed this was proper.
The Court said the change in case law had a “material impact” on Bracey’s habeas case to allow the use of Rule 60(b) to take another look at his habeas petition. While not all changes in case law will open the door under Rule 60(b), important changes like the one affecting Bracey’s case implicate fairness and must allow an avenue to relief, the Court said.