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Innocence Claims Hitting New Roadblocks After June Ruling

Prisoners' lawyers say last month's U.S. Supreme Court ruling limiting innocence challenges in court is causing more harm in an arena that already made post-conviction litigation overly challenging, the Appeal reports. In Jones v. Hendrix, the 6-3 court said imprisoned people who have already filed for post-conviction relief can be barred from filing a second time, even if they’re innocent of the crime for which they’ve been incarcerated, or at least innocent of a sentencing enhancement. It was the latest in a string of rulings under the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) that limit the rights of habeas corpus. It’s difficult to determine how many people will be affected, but it’s likely in the hundreds, Guernsey said. She added that some prisoners are serving sentences that would be decades shorter if convicted today. “The Jones v. Hendrix decision really values finality over accuracy,” said Alison Guernsey, the director of the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa College of Law. “It values efficiency over fairness.”


Colin Prince, the chief appellate attorney for the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, cited the case of Harry Whitman, who robbed two banks at gunpoint in the 1990s. He was sentenced to 52 years. Based on his prior convictions from more than a decade and a half before the robberies, the court classified him as an Armed Career Criminal, which subjected him to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. Whitman filed a habeas petition in 2002, but it was denied. The Supreme Court’s subsequent rulings called into question the legitimacy of his status as an Armed Career Criminal. He filed another habeas petition last year. Prince said he felt optimistic about Whitman’s chances before the Jones ruling occurred. Now, he said, Whitman has few options left. “If you have filed [a post-conviction challenge] already, then you’re out of luck,” said Geremy Kamens, the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. “So you are actually statutorily innocent of your alleged crime, but the Supreme Court said, ‘Too bad for you. You were convicted at a time when we hadn’t recognized that.’”

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