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Actual Innocence and Habeas Corpus

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Is a claim that a convicted prisoner is actually innocent of the crime, by itself without any claim that the trial was procedurally unfair, a ground for relief in habeas corpus?  That question remains unanswered.  Today in Jones v. Taylor, No. 13-36202, the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court's grant of relief to an Oregon prisoner convicted of intrafamily sexual abuse.  As sometimes happens in such cases, the witnesses (who are family of the defendant) recanted.  The opinion by Judge Tashima skips the question of whether a sufficient showing of actual innocence can be a ground for habeas relief and says that this showing doesn't make it.

This is a common outcome in such cases.  The Supreme Court seemed poised to decide the "actual innocence" question in Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390 (1993), but when it took a good, hard look at the evidence it saw that it fell "far short" of anything that might conceivably warrant overturning a conviction.  In the infamous Troy Davis case, the high court took the extraordinary step of sending an original habeas petition to a district court for fact-finding on innocence, where the district judge found that Davis's claim of innocence was "smoke and mirrors." 

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The underlying question however remains, why is recantation evidence "properly viewed with great suspicion?" It is no more (or no less) "suspicious" than an uncorroborated, unwitnessed allegation, where the accuser may in fact have a motive to fabricate.

Is the correct analysis of such recantation evidence subjective or objective? Are there relevant objective factors that could (or should) be considered, e.g., length of time from incident to reporting; length of time from testimony to recantation; age, IQ and reading comprehension level(s) of accuser / witnesses?

Finally, there is the logical inconsistency of a jurist concluding that "no logical juror" would come to a differing result. Judges are not jurors and vice-versa. What might impact a "reasonable juror" may be irrelevant to a long-term prosecutor now on the Bench. [I am not slamming prosecutors - merely pointing out that their "mind-set" is geared to evaluating evidence and testimony differently than say, a neutral juror or equally as institutionally biased as a long-term defense counsel].

The problem of "wrongful" (or more appropriately perhaps, "erroneous") convictions is real. The present approach to such claims, as evidenced in Jones v. Taylor, is the proverbial "ostrich" head in the sand approach and not very helpful or enlightened when it comes to dealing with one of these cases.

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