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'Maddening Irrelevance' of Innocence in AEDPA Case

Thanks to the “arbitrary cruelty” of a federal law strictly limiting inmates’ court challenges of their convictions, a man serving a life sentence for murder in Arkansas has struck out in his attempts to be freed based on the same evidence that freed two co-defendants, journalist Radley Balko reports. In a lengthy examination of the case of Charlie Vaughn and the law standing in his way, the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, Balko documents how “a handwritten, barely coherent” petition drafted for the illiterate and mentally challenged Vaughn by a jailhouse lawyer triggered the AEDPA’s provisions after Vaughn’s cause was aided by new evidence and competent lawyers.


Vaughn has been incarcerated since 1991 in the rape and murder of an 81-year-old woman. He eventually confessed and implicated three others. In 2015, more advanced DNA testing prompted one of those three to confess and exonerate Vaughn and the others. Neither the DNA nor other physical evidence linked Vaughn to the crime. The new confession and other evidence eventually freed the other two men, but Vaughn’s inept first attempt at a court test of his innocence claim excluded Vaughn from such relief. “By design, AEDPA is complicated and unforgiving,” says David Moran, who runs the innocence clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Moran was speaking generally, and isn't familiar with the specifics of Vaughn's case. “Remember, the entire point of the law was to limit the ability of prisoners to access federal courts. Because you have just a few attorneys who truly understand it, there’s far more demand for AEDPA expertise than supply. You can be a really smart, well-intentioned lawyer, but if you aren’t an AEDPA specialist, you’re susceptible to making mistakes. And clients pay for those mistakes."

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