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Law School Case Brief

Sturgeon v. Quarterman - 615 F. Supp. 2d 546 (S.D. Tex. 2009)


Ordinarily, claims of actual innocence are not cognizable on federal habeas corpus review and do not state a ground for relief absent an independent constitutional violation occurring in the underlying state criminal proceeding. Thus, the claim of innocence is not itself a constitutional claim on federal habeas review, but acts instead as a gateway through which a habeas petitioner must pass to have his otherwise barred constitutional claim considered on the merits. In other words, where a petitioner can make a persuasive showing that he is actually innocent, then he may fit within the fundamental-miscarriage-of-justice exception to the doctrine of procedural default. To fit within the fundamental-miscarriage-of-justice exception, the petitioner must show that, as a factual matter, he did not commit the crime of conviction. To establish the requisite probability that he is actually innocent, the petitioner must support his allegations with new, reliable evidence that was not presented at trial and must show that it was more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence. Examples of new, reliable evidence that may establish factual innocence include exculpatory scientific evidence, credible declarations of guilt by another, trustworthy eyewitness accounts, and certain physical evidence.


Petitioner state inmate filed an amended petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C.S. § 2254 challenging his conviction for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, a firearm. Respondent, the Director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Correctional Institutions Division, filed a second motion for summary judgment. The inmate asserted his actual innocence. The inmate's conviction rested on the victim's identification of him as being one of two robbers. The court held that, although the inmate's claims were procedurally defaulted under Texas law, they fit within the miscarriage-of-justice exception that permitted de novo review of his constitutional claims. A witness who had accepted a plea agreement would have testified that the inmate took no part in the crime, but he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination after the State threatened to refile a robbery charge against him if he testified. Counsel's failure to challenge the witness' Fifth Amendment invocation constituted ineffective assistance because the limitations period had run on the robbery charge, which also had been dismissed with prejudice under the plea bargain.


Did the threat to refile a robbery charge violate due process?




The court concluded that petitioner satisfied the fundamental-miscarriage-of-justice exception and that "a review of the merits of [his] constitutional claims" was warranted. Petitioner's claim concerning his counsel's failure to object is subject to de novo review under the legal standard that governs allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment, rather than under the deferential standard provided by the AEDPA. The threat to refile violated due process because the threat lacked a good-faith objective basis. Counsel also ineffectively failed to present expert witness testimony on the unreliability of cross-racial eyewitness identification. Counsel's failures caused the inmate actual prejudice because she failed to present exculpatory evidence. The pretrial lineup procedure was also unduly suggestive.

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