Commentary: How Federal Habeas Corpus Law Enables States to Commit Miscarriages of Justice

1990s amendments to federal law that severely restricted federal judicial review of state convictions are enabling states to commit miscarriages of justice that risk the lives and freedom of innocent people across the country, writes Washington Post columnist Radley Balko (pictured).

In an opinion column published August 9, 2021, Balko says that proponents of the amendments to the federal habeas corpus law justified the limitations on federal court enforcement of constitutional rights by asserting that “state courts, prosecutors and attorneys general could be trusted to prevent wrongful convictions.” The law was enacted in 1996 as part of the so-called “Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act” (AEDPA), and Balko says of its supporters, “[i]t’s hard to overstate how wrong they were.”

Balko cites cases in Missouri and Arizona to prove his point. In Missouri, which he says has “an abysmal history of wrongful convictions — including in death penalty cases — at least three men remain imprisoned despite the fact that the prosecutors in the jurisdictions where they were convicted have released the evidence of their innocence and the real killers have confessed.” In 2001, the state attorney general’s office argued that because of procedural barriers in his case, death row exoneree Joseph Amrine should be executed even if the court found that he was actually innocent. Nineteen years later, the attorney general’s office intervened to prevent county prosecutors from freeing Lamar Johnson, who was wrongfully convicted of murder. Despite a confession from the actual murderer, the Missouri Supreme Court left Johnson without a remedy, saying that the case involved “only the issue of whether there is any authority to appeal not … whether Johnson is innocent.”

A similar issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the Arizona Attorney General’s appeal in the case of Barry Jones, who was sentenced to death on charges that he had murdered his girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter. In November 2019, a federal appeals court overturned Jones’ convictions for child abuse, sexual assault, and felony murder based on medical evidence that the injuries that killed the girl were sustained at a time during which it was impossible for Jones to have inflicted them. Despite substantial new evidence that Jones is innocent, Balko writes, “[t]he state is arguing that the federal courts are prohibited from even considering that question, and that the new evidence is irrelevant because Jones is procedurally barred from using it.”

Balko concludes: “What’s truly astonishing is that the state would even make such an argument in the face of a clear injustice. And that exposes the lie at the heart of AEDPA’s restriction on federal court review — that state courts and state officials can be trusted to protect the innocent and respect the rights of the accused. The record is clear: They can’t.”

Sources