U.S. Supreme Court to Decide if Relief to Innocent Prisoners Can Be Denied if Evidence is Too Late

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The United States Supreme Court granted the State of Michigan's petition for review on October 29, 2012, in McQuiggin v. Perkins to address what showing a prisoner must make in order to raise a credible claim of actual innocence after the one-year statute of limitations period for filing federal habeas corpus petitions has expired.

On March 4, 1993, Floyd Perkins left a house party in Flint, Michigan, with Rodney Henderson and Damarr Jones. Henderson was later found dead as a result of stab wounds. Mr. Perkins was arrested and charged with murder, and conflicting evidence was presented at trial, including evidence that Damarr Jones, not Mr. Perkins, killed Mr. Henderson.

The jury convicted Mr. Perkins of first degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The federal trial court found the petition was barred by the one-year statute of limitations.

But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed, ruling that if Mr. Perkins asserted a credible claim of actual innocence, he was entitled to equitable tolling of the limitations period because "where an otherwise time-barred habeas petitioner can demonstrate that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the petitioner should be allowed to . . . argue the merits of his underlying constitutional claims.”

The court went on to find that petitioners who have a credible claim of actual innocence - which is a very high bar to meet - do not also have to demonstrate reasonable diligence in order to have a late petition reviewed on the merits. “Given the Supreme Court’s rich jurisprudence protecting the rights of the wrongfully incarcerated," the court wrote, "petitioners who seek equitable tolling based on actual innocence should not be treated the same way as those seeking equitable tolling because of ineffective assistance of counsel, confusion of filing requirements, or other important, but less compelling reasons.”

The State of Michigan sought review of Sixth Circuit's decision in the U.S. Supreme Court. Together with the attorneys general of Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, Michigan argued that "society’s interest in vindicating claims of innocence" is not worth requiring the State to respond to evidence of actual innocence because it can be difficult to do so years after a crime.

The Supreme Court granted review on October 29. The case is No. 12-126.