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Law School Case Brief

Schlup v. Delo - 513 U.S. 298, 115 S. Ct. 851 (1995)


The fundamental miscarriage of justice exception seeks to balance the societal interests in finality, comity, and conservation of scarce judicial resources with the individual interest in justice that arises in the extraordinary case. The Carrier standard, rather than the Sawyer standard, properly strikes that balance when the claimed injustice is that constitutional error has resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent of the crime. 


Petitioner Schlup, a Missouri prisoner, was convicted of participating in the murder of a fellow inmate and sentenced to death. In this, his second federal habeas petition, he alleged that constitutional error at his trial deprived the jury of critical evidence that would have established his innocence. The District Court declined to reach the petition's merits, holding that Schlup could not satisfy the threshold showing of "actual innocence" required by Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U.S. 333, 336, 120 L. Ed. 2d 269, 112 S. Ct. 2514, under which a petitioner must demonstrate "by clear and convincing evidence that, but for a constitutional error, no reasonable juror would have found" him guilty. In his petition for a writ of certiorari, Schlup argued that the Sawyer standard did not apply to his claim of actual innocence and that, in any event, the intermediate appellate court misapplied the Sawyer standard. 


Did the lower courts err in applying the more stringent Sawyer standard in evaluating criminal defendant Schlup’s claim that constitutional error deprived the jury of critical evidence that would have established his innocence?




The Supreme Court of the United States granted Schlup's petition for certiorari to consider whether the Sawyer standard provides adequate protection against the kind of miscarriage of justice that would result from the execution of a person who is actually innocent. The Court vacated the Court of Appeals' decision and remanded the case. The Court held that the standard of Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 91 L. Ed. 2d 397, 106 S. Ct. 2639 -- which requires a habeas petitioner to show that "a constitutional violation has probably resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent," rather than the more stringent Sawyer standard, governs the miscarriage of justice inquiry when a petitioner who has been sentenced to death raises a claim of actual innocence to avoid a procedural bar to the consideration of the merits of his constitutional claims. The Court held that, in applying the Carrier standard in the context of Schlup’s request for an evidentiary hearing, the district court should have focused on the likely behavior of the trier of fact and should have assessed the probative force of Schlup’s new evidence in connection with the evidence of guilt adduced at trial.

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