WASHINGTON In a pair of 5-4 decisions that divided along ideological lines, the Supreme Court on Tuesday made it easier for inmates to challenge their convictions.
In McQuiggin v. Perkins, No. 12-126, the majority said a one-year filing deadline for prisoners seeking federal review of their state court convictions under a 1996 law may be relaxed if they present compelling evidence of their innocence. The new “miscarriage of justice exception” to the deadline, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, “applies to a severely confined category” – cases in which no reasonable juror aware of the new evidence would have voted to convict the defendant.
The decision did not seem likely to help the prisoner whose case was under review, but the exception it announced drew a barbed dissent from Justice Antonin Scalia, who called the majority opinion “a series of transparent non sequiturs” and “a flagrant breach of the separation of powers.”
The appeal was brought by Floyd Perkins, a Michigan man serving a life sentence for murder. He was convicted based largely on the testimony of Damarr Jones, who said he saw Perkins stab a third man in the head in 1993 after they left a house party in Flint. The third man, Rodney Henderson, was found dead on a wooded trail.
Perkins testified that he had parted from the other two men before the killing and later saw his accuser under a streetlight, bloody and agitated. The jury believed Jones.
While in prison, Perkins obtained sworn statements from three people who said they had evidence that Jones was the actual killer. Their basic contention was that Jones had taken a bloody pair of orange pants to a dry cleaner the day after the killing.
Though Perkins obtained the last statement in 2002, he did not ask a federal judge to throw out his conviction until 2008. The judge refused, saying that it had been filed too late, and that the statements were in any event “dubious.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, reversed the judge’s ruling, saying that Perkins’ lack of diligence in presenting the new evidence did not matter. Ginsburg said that was not quite right. Diligence, she wrote, was a factor in assessing the reliability of the new evidence.
Ginsburg, even as she said that strong evidence of innocence may be considered at any time, indicated that she did not think much of Perkins’ efforts. Her opinion returned the case to the 6th Circuit with instructions to adopt the trial court’s negative assessment of the statements Perkins had collected “absent cause, which we do not currently see, for the 6th Circuit to upset that evaluation.” Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.
In dissent, Scalia wrote that “there is not a whit of precedential support” for the idea that the Supreme Court was entitled to alter the deadline set out in the 1996 law. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas joined all of the dissent, and Justice Samuel Alito joined most of it.
In the second decision issued Tuesday, in Trevino v. Thaler, No. 11-10189, the same five-justice majority extended a ruling last year that had allowed prisoners to challenge their state convictions in federal courts based on the argument that their trial lawyers had been ineffective, even though the prisoners had not raised the issue in earlier proceedings.
In another development Tuesday, in Secretary of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana, No. 12-1039, the court let stand without comment an appeals court ruling blocking an Indiana law that would have withheld Medicaid money from Planned Parenthood because it performs abortions.
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