U.S. Supreme Court Votes for More Protections for the Innocent

In a pair of recent 5-4 decisions with Justice Kennedy providing the deciding vote, the U.S. Supreme Court has widened what it called  a “gateway”  for inmates to challenge their convictions.

In the first decision, McQuiggen v. Perkins, the majority agreed that a one-year filing deadline for those seeking a federal review of their state court convictions under a 1996 law may be relaxed if the inmate can provide compelling evidence of his/her innocence. Justice Ginsburg wrote that this exception “applies to a severely confined category”–cases in which no reasonable juror who heard the new evidence would have voted for a conviction. Ginsburg writes, “Actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which the petitioner may pass.” Of course, this seems like a “no brainer” and yet, there was dissent.

Justice Scalia wrote a “blustering” (Justice Ginsberg’s word) dissent to the majority opinion. This should not be surprising as he is the same Justice who wrote in 2009, “this court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually innocent.”

The second decision issued on Tuesday extended a ruling last year that allowed inmates to challenge their state convictions in federal courts based on an argument that their lawyers had been ineffective, even though they had not raised the issue in earlier proceedings.

Though these decisions are moves in the right direction, I find it deeply troubling that there are Justices on the highest court in our land who do not believe that actual innocence is enough to keep someone from being executed. Never mind that this system, or any system, simply cannot be relied upon to get it right 100% of the time. The only way to ensure that innocent people are not executed in this nation is to finally get rid of the death penalty once and for all.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

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