On May 28, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), which restricts prisoners’ habeas corpus rights, contains an “actual innocence” exception for petitions filed outside of the law’s strict statute of limitations. Under AEDPA, a prisoner must file a habeas petition within one year of the loss of a direct appeal or within one year of discovering new evidence through the exercise of due diligence. In McQuiggen v. Perkins, a 5-4 decision written by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that “actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass,” meaning that a prisoner who can show proof of innocence may file a petition outside of the statute of limitations and a court may consider the merits of the claims.
In McQuiggen, the Court addressed whether federal courts could consider the habeas petition of Floyd Perkins, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder, when that petition was filed well outside the statute of limitations. While in prison, Mr. Perkins gathered affidavits from three witnesses to support his claim of innocence, but he did not present the evidence to a court until nearly eight years later. A federal district court rejected his petition, stating that Mr. Perkins failed to show diligence in presenting the newly found evidence. His attorneys argued that imposing a filing deadline on a prisoner who seeks to prove innocence would be a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the ruling, holding that the nature of the actual innocence claim allowed him to present his claim as if it were filed on time.
The Supreme Court agreed that actual innocence is a special circumstance, but the exception is narrow. The Court set a high bar for a showing of innocence, holding that petitioners must prove that “it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence.” The Court remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit, instructing it to adopt the district court’s finding that Mr. Perkins’ evidence was insufficient to meet this actual innocence standard. While the Court’s decision may not provide relief for Mr. Perkins, this ruling could affect the habeas corpus petitions of prisoners across the country, including those on death row, who can now argue that courts should consider the merits of their claims of innocence rather than rejecting them as procedurally defaulted under AEDPA.