Since the 2011 publication of Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, legal scholar Brandon L. Garrett has written widely on issues of criminal procedure, forensic science, and the law. Below, he outlines three recent Supreme Court rulings whose importance has been overshadowed by the term’s several high profile and historic decisions.
With the past Term’s Supreme Court’s decisions behind us, commentators, scholars, and judges, are still processing the implications of the major decisions on race, voting rights, and same sex marriage. Understandably less noticed have been three decisions with real implications for criminal justice. In cases concerning the procedural barriers to relief when evidence of innocence arises after conviction, the expanded collection and storage of DNA, and the conduct of police interrogations, the Court issued rulings that bear on the accuracy of our criminal justice system.
First, the Court continues to recognize that innocence should be an important consideration for federal judges reviewing prisoners’ habeas petitions. In McQuiggan v. Perkins, the Court recognized for the first time that evidence of a prisoner’s innocence can provide an exception to the restrictive one-year statute of limitations imposed in 1996 by Congress in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). However, the Court somewhat gratuitously emphasized that this innocence exception would be “severely confined” and that the class of prisoners able to show that a jury presented with new evidence would be likely not to convict may be quite small.
Moreover, the Court still has not recognized an outright constitutional claim of innocence. Innocence is merely a “gateway” to excuse complex procedural barriers, but innocence is not a stand-alone ground for relief in federal courts. More than two-decades into the DNA era, judges are now far more aware than in the past that prisoners can prove their outright innocence of serious crimes. But as I describe in Convicting the Innocent, judges have only slowly and reluctantly loosened their grip on technical rules that make it extremely difficult for even innocent convicts to secure their freedom.