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Habeas Corpus - Habeas Corpus And Capital Punishment

federal death court penalty

The enormous growth of procedural obstacles on federal habeas, as well as the new limitations period established in the AEDPA, have made it extremely difficult for unrepresented petitioners, acting pro se, to receive federal review of their constitutional claims. As a result, the bulk of meaningful federal habeas litigation now involves death-sentenced inmates, for whom Congress recently established a statutory right to counsel on federal habeas. Death-row petitioners often focus their habeas litigation on the federal lawfulness of state death penalty procedures. When the Court first subjected state death penalty schemes to federal constitutional scrutiny in the early 1970s, the popular perception was that the Court was deciding the constitutional rightness or wrongness of the death penalty as a punishment. In 1976, the Court made clear that the death penalty was a permissible punishment so long as states developed adequate systems for ensuring its reliable and equitable administration.

The notorious subsequent history reveals the development of extremely intricate, difficult-to-apply doctrines that have plunged states and petitioners into a morass of confusing litigation concerning states' obligations in their administration of the death penalty. This litigation eventually arrives in federal court with the result that federal habeas has become less a broad forum for enforcing the federal rights of state prisoners generally than the inevitable battleground for enforcing or overturning state death sentences and elaborating the meaning of the Eighth Amendment in capital cases. The drafters of the AEDPA undoubtedly understood this when they equated "effective death penalty" with diminished federal habeas corpus.

The role of federal habeas in supervising state death penalty schemes has also prompted a reexamination of the scope of habeas review. Throughout American legal history, as a matter of black letter law, federal habeas could not serve as a forum for relitigating the accuracy of criminal convictions. But death-row inmates insisted that the difference in kind between capital punishment and imprisonment should require federal habeas relief where extremely strong evidence of actual innocence surfaces after trial and the state courts refuse to provide any post-trial mechanism for evaluating new evidence of innocence. In making this argument, capital defense lawyers borrowed from Judge Henry Friendly's influential article insisting that innocence should not be irrelevant to the availability of federal habeas review. But whereas Judge Friendly focused on innocence as a limiting principle, to restore habeas to its purported roots as an exceptional remedy, advocates for capital defendants sought to establish actual innocence as a separate and independent basis for habeas relief. In a much-observed case, the Court ultimately denied habeas relief to a death-sentenced inmate whose only claim was his actual innocence of the crime (Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993)). But the Court's decision ultimately turned on the petitioner's lack of sufficient new evidence of innocence, and the Court did not dispositively rule on the cognizability of such "bareinnocence" claims.

Habeas Corpus - The Future Of Federal Habeas For State Prisoners [next] [back] Habeas Corpus - The Proceduralization Of Federal Habeas Corpus

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