Volume 36, Issue 2 (Spring 2014)
Over the years, the Supreme Court has wrestled with the idea of granting federal habeas corpus relief to state prisoners with freestanding actual innocence claims. Although the Court has assumed that it may be unconstitutional to execute an innocent man who has had a fair trial, it has not expressly decided whether a state prisoner claiming only actual innocence is entitled to federal habeas relief.
This Note argues that the Supreme Court should affirmatively decide that state prisoners with a freestanding actual innocence claim - facing capital punishment or otherwise- have standing for federal habeas corpus relief under the premise that the incarceration and execution of an innocent person violates the Eighth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Note provides some statistics on those wrongfully incarcerated and discusses the difficulty of overcoming the presumption of guilt. It reviews the evolution of the writ of habeas corpus and highlights the writ’s purpose and place in our Nation's history, explains why the Court is in a better position than Congress to determine the issue, addresses the Court’s federalism, separation of powers and policy concerns, and proposes criteria outlining when federal habeas corpus relief should be granted. The Note also develops the “extraordinarily high” proof of evidence standard suggested by the Court should petitioners seek relief based on a freestanding claim of innocence and applies the proposed standard to a current California Innocence Project case.