Habeas Corpus for the Innocent
39 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2015 Last revised: 30 Sep 2017
Date Written: March 1, 2015
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first DNA exoneration in the United States. In the last twenty-five years, the Innocence Movement has succeeded in achieving thousands of additional exonerations while bringing about significant reform in the criminal justice system. These reforms have particularly sought to address the primary causes of wrongful convictions, including eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, and flawed forensic science. However, as pre-trial and investigatory policy changes have taken hold, very few comparable systemic procedural reforms have been implemented. In fact, in 1996, on the eve of the Innocent Movement, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act [“AEDPA”]. Rather than seeking to alter post-conviction procedure to more effectively address viable claims of innocence, AEDPA operated to radically restrict federal habeas review for state prisoners. Nowhere is AEDPA’s impact more devastating than in the context of factually innocence prisoners seeking review of their wrongful convictions.
Although federal habeas corpus review was historically designed to perform the fundamental function of correcting wrongful convictions of the innocent, under AEDPA, federal habeas review no longer adequately achieves that goal. The overhaul of federal habeas procedure under AEDPA occurred before the Innocence Movement was in full swing. Thus, the debate leading up to the enactment of AEDPA did not benefit from the exoneration data available today. Now that the number of exonerations has risen to over 1500 — with this ever-growing figure widely recognized as the mere tip of the iceberg — the moment to revisit federal review of criminal convictions is long overdue.
This Article proposes a federal post-conviction innocence track as a viable, systemic response to the wrongful conviction crisis. In doing so, this Article contributes to the ongoing debate among legal scholars about the role of innocence claims in federal habeas corpus jurisprudence. As the Innocence Movement turns twenty-five — and as it continues to expose the depths of the wrongful conviction epidemic in the American criminal justice movement — the time has come for more widespread systemic reform.
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