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A petitioner otherwise subject to defenses of abusive or successive use of the writ may have his federal constitutional claim considered on the merits if he makes a proper showing of actual innocence. This rule, or fundamental miscarriage of justice exception, is grounded in the "equitable discretion" of habeas courts to see that federal constitutional errors do not result in the incarceration of innocent persons. But this body of habeas jurisprudence makes clear that a claim of "actual innocence" is not itself a constitutional claim, but instead a gateway through which a habeas petitioner must pass to have his otherwise barred constitutional claim considered on the merits.
Herrera was convicted of the capital murder of Police Officer Carrisalez and sentenced to death in January 1982. The conviction was based on two eyewitness identifications, numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence and petitioner Herrera's handwritten letter impliedly admitting his guilt. In July 1982, Herrera pleaded guilty to the related capital murder of Officer Rucker. Herrera unsuccessfully challenged the Carrisalez conviction on direct appeal and in two collateral proceedings in the Texas state courts, and in a federal habeas petition. Ten years after his conviction, he urged in a second federal habeas proceeding that newly discovered evidence demonstrated that he was "actually innocent" of the murders of Carrisalez and Rucker and that his execution was prohibited by the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantee. Herrera presented affidavits tending to show that his now-dead brother had committed the murders. The district court granted his request for a stay of execution so that he could present his actual innocence claim and the supporting affidavits in state court. In vacating the stay, the court of appeals held that the claim was not cognizable on federal habeas absent an accompanying federal constitutional violation.
Was Herrera entitled to federal habeas corpus relief?
The Court held that Herrera's claim of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence was not a ground for federal habeas corpus relief absent an independent constitutional violation. According to the Court, the State met its burden of proving that the inmate was guilty of the capital murder beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. Thus, the inmate did not come before the courts as one who was "innocent," but as one who had been convicted by due process of law. The Court posited that Texas' refusal to entertain Herrera's newly discovered evidence eight years after his conviction did not transgress any principle of fundamental fairness.