Federal Habeas Corpus: How to Raise an Actual Innocence Claim

Believe it or not, someone proving they`re “actually innocent” of their criminal offense is not enough to win federal habeas corpus relief. That`s because actual innocence, by itself, is not a constitutional violation to allow for federal habeas relief. Instead, it`s only the first step toward relief, and there must also be an underlying constitutional claim. Here`s how to raise a successful actual-innocence habeas claim.

What is Actual Innocence?

Typically, actual innocence arises after the discovery of new evidence that would create a “sufficient probability” that there`s reasonable doubt as to a habeas petitioner`s guilt. Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995). The Supreme Court has also made clear that actual innocence means “factual innocence,” as opposed to mere legal innocence. Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614 (1998).

The different between factual and legal innocence is sometimes not very clear, but two cases provide some guidance. In Waucaush v. United States, 380 F.3d 251 (6th Cir. 2004), the court granted habeas relief where an offense that was purely intra-state, and thus not a federal offense, was a valid factual innocence claim. And in Beavers v. Saffle, 216 F.3d 918 (10th Cir. 2000), the court held that a self-defense argument claim was more of a “legal innocence” claim than factual innocence. What petitioners need to know is that courts rarely grant habeas relief for legal innocence claims.

What counts as “new evidence” is also not entirely settled. “Admittedly, courts have struggled to define what qualifies as new evidence. Some courts treat all evidence as new so long as it was not presented at trial. Other courts maintain that evidence is new only if it was unavailable at the time of trial.” Lowery v. Parris, 819 Fed. Appx. 420 (6th Cir. 2020) (collecting cases for each type of evidence).

But the new evidence isn`t evaluated in a vacuum. The Supreme Court says that “all the evidence” in a case must be considered, both old and new, when weighing an actual innocence claim. House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518 (2006). And the habeas court isn`t “barred by the rules of admissibility that would govern at trial,” the Court has said. Schlup. However, once the actual innocence claim opens the habeas door for the underlying constitutional claim, any evidence subsequently considered by the court must be admissible under the rules of evidence. Bousley.

The Standard for Proving Actual Innocence

There are two different standards for showing actual innocence in federal habeas corpus. The standard for a first-in-time motion, or one that`s not considered “second or successive” (SOS), is whether “it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted” the petitioner. Bousley. This was called the “probable innocence” standard in Schlup.

The actual innocence standard for SOS petitions, however, is much steeper. For a state petitioner, the law requires:

(i) the factual predicate for the claim could not have been discovered previously through the exercise of due diligence, and

(ii) the facts underlying the claim, if proven and viewed in light of the evidence as a whole, would be sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that, but for constitutional error, no reasonable factfinder would have found the [habeas] applicant guilty of the underlying offense.

28 U.S.C. sec 2244(b)(2)(B)

For a federal petitioner, the bar is just as high:

Newly discovered evidence that, if proven and viewed in light of the evidence as a whole, would be sufficient to establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable factfinder would have found the movant guilt of the offense[.]

28 U.S.C. sec 2255(h)(1)

The bar for SOS petitioners is high because a showing by “clear and convincing evidence” is more onerous than the more-likely-than-not standard for a first petition. Clear and convincing evidence is like a two-thirds majority in Congress, whereas more-likely-than-not is like a simple majority or just over 50%. And the Supreme Court noted in Schlup that Congress` use of the word “would,” instead of “could,” in determining that “no reasonable factfinder would have found the applicant guilty,” points to the “likely behavior” of the factfinder (juror or judge), where the word “could” points to the “power” of the factfinder to find someone is innocent. This was an important distinction, the Court said.

It`s also not just the offense of conviction that matter for actual innocence, but also any charges that were dropped as part of the plea deal. “In cases where the government has forgone more serious charges in the course of the plea bargaining, petitioner`s showing of actual innocence must also extend to those charges,” the Court said in Bousley. Congress has since codified this requirement in 18 U.S.C. sec 3296.

What Constitutes an Actual Innocence Habeas Claim?

As I eluded to in the beginning, actual innocence is not a valid habeas claim — at least, not by itself. There must be some underlying constitutional violation related to the actual innocence claim that would allow for federal habeas relief. As the Court said in Schlup: “Schlup`s claim of innocence does not by itself provide a basis for relief. Instead, his claim for relief depends critically on the validity of his [underlying constitutional] claims.”

But that was dicta and the Supreme Court has skated around the question of whether a “freestanding” actual-innocence claim could ever form the basis for habeas relief. One case, again in language that was not the holding of the Court, provided a clear suggestion that it would not. In Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993), the Court agreed that a petitioner`s actual innocence claim was enough to avoid a procedural bar to habeas relief for his underlying constitutional claim, but rejected any notion that it could be a valid claim itself.

Claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence have never been held to state a ground for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation occurring in the underlying state criminal proceeding. [That is because] this rule is grounded in the principle that federal habeas courts sit to ensure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution, not to correct errors of fact.

The Court further reasoned that a federal habeas court deciding a factual issue, such as an actual innocence claim, and undoing a state-court decision “would be more disruptive to our federal system than to provide for federal habeas review of freestanding claims of actual innocence.” The Court`s reasoning has not gone without much criticism by scholars and advocates of those wrongfully imprisoned, however.

Instead of habeas relief, the Court said that the “traditional remedy” for actual innocence claims has been “executive clemency.”

Actual Innocence is a Gateway Through a Procedural Bar

The way an actual innocence claim works in federal habeas corpus is that it “serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass” to have his otherwise-barred constitutional claims heard. McQuiggin v. Perkins, 569 U.S. 383 (2013). The Court cited several habeas procedural bars that it has excused because of actual innocence, including procedural-default for failing to raise a claim earlier, the bar on SOS petitions, the bar on federal evidentiary hearings, and state procedural bars.

The Court established the standard required to avoid a procedural bar with an actual innocence claim: “A petitioner does not meet the threshold requirement unless he persuades the district court that, in light of the new evidence, no juror, acting reasonably, would have voted to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Court also added that an “unjustified delay” is a factor the habeas court must consider with an actual innocence claim, but didn`t define what that meant.

Where to File an Actual innocence Claim

As with most habeas claims, the starting point is almost always in the federal district court. See secs 2255(a), 2254(a). However, an actual innocence claim in a SOS petition must be authorized by the court of appeals, and must meet the harsher “clear and convincing” standard. secs 2244(b)(2)(B), 2255(h)(1). But don`t forget about the Supreme Court. Both state and federal petitioners may file an original petition for habeas relief in the Supreme Court. For example, in In re Davis, 557 U.S. 952 (2009), the Court agreed that the petitioner`s claim of actual innocence was compelling enough that it “transferred” the habeas petition to the district court for a hearing on the actual innocence claim based on newly discovered evidence. While the opinion was just one short paragraph, the Court reaffirmed what it said in Schlup:

Indeed, concern about the injustice that results from the conviction of an innocent person has long been at the core of the criminal justice system.

IN CONCLUSION, the bar for actual innocence habeas claims is rather high. The key is to understand that an actual innocence claim is the trailblazer for the underlying constitutional claim. Put the proper emphasis on each claim and you`ll succeed with an actual innocence habeas claim in federal court.

Dale Chappell is the author of hundreds of published articles on the federal criminal justice system, and the Insider`s Guide series of federal post-conviction books. Follow his blog at www.zenlawguy.com and on Twitter at @zenlawguy.

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