Habeas Corpus as a Safety Valve for Innocence


In recent years, a series of United States Supreme Court decisions has restricted access by state prisoners to the Great Writ. As Professor Steve Goldstein explains, one important reason for these restrictions is the view of the majority of the Justices that the primary purpose of habeas corpus is to deter state judges from ignoring established constitutional rights. Nevertheless, for some of the Justices, an additional purpose of habeas corpus is to provide a “safety valve” for innocent defendants and for those defendants inappropriately sentenced to death. Habeas corpus, in other words, provides the opportunity for the defendant who is either innocent of the crime charged or of the sentence received, to obtain relief from an erroneous state court judgment. The view of habeas corpus as a safety valve for the innocent defendant explains why restrictions imposed by the Court in the areas of successive petitions and procedural default contain exceptions for the innocent defendant.

With the decision in Teague v. Lane and the cases following Teague, state prisoners on death row face an important new barrier to raising federal claims in habeas corpus. With two exceptions, Teague barred state prisoners from raising claims based on new law and claims that were established after the prisoner’s conviction became final in habeas corpus proceedings.

This paper explores whether Teague and its exceptions continue to protect the innocent defendant as do the rules pertaining to abuse of the writ and procedural default, and, assuming they do, what the parameters of the innocence protection are. The first part of the paper recounts the growth of the jurisprudence of innocence in habeas corpus and examines Teague against that backdrop. The second part of the paper examines innocence itself, particularly in the context of death penalty sentencing. What does it mean to be “innocent” and how does a prisoner in habeas corpus make the required showing? For purposes of death penalty litigation, the apparent agreement among the Justices that a prisoner can be “innocent” of a death sentence in a way that is analogous to innocence of the underlying offense is crucially important.

Suggested Reading