Supreme Court Puts Justice Ahead of Procedure in Two Habeas Decisions

On May 28, the U.S. Supreme Court issued two decisions in cases involving federal habeas petitions that will make it marginally easier for those convicted of a crime to seek further judicial review in certain circumstances.  In Trevino v. Thaler (Case No 11-10189) and McQuiggin v. Perkins (Case No 12-126), the Court ruled that prisoners should be allowed to challenge their convictions despite the failure to meet certain filing deadlines imposed by the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).

“With these two decisions, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the importance of justice above legal niceties and procedural technicalities.  We are pleased that the Court recognizes that a fair system must allow individuals a real opportunity to present new evidence that could establish their innocence or to raise claims that their trial attorney’s ineffective representation resulted in an unjust sentencing,” said Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project.

In both Perkins and Trevino, the petitioners sought access to federal courts through habeas review, even though their claims would otherwise be dismissed for failing to follow certain procedural requirements.  Perkins, who missed a filing deadline for his habeas petition, is serving a life sentence for murder, but has presented evidence that he discovered only after his trial showing that someone else committed the crime.  Trevino, who faces the death penalty for rape and murder, claims that his trial counsel failed to present mitigating evidence during sentencing that he was severely abused as a child and is cognitively impaired, but he was barred from bringing this claim by a Texas state law that the U.S. Supreme Court found to inadequately ensure a defendant’s constitutional right to effective counsel.  In today’s rulings, both on votes of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court determined that narrow procedural requirements should not prevent the two from asserting their claims, and remanded the cases to the lower courts for further review.

In 2009, TCP issued Justice Denied, a comprehensive report that documents failures of the criminal justice system to protect the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and offers recommendations for protecting this fundamental constitutional right.


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