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.
On the basis of proof which included two eyewitness identifications, numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence, and petitioner Herrera's handwritten letter impliedly admitting his guilt, Herrera was convicted of the capital murder of Police Officer Carrisalez and sentenced to death in January 1982. After pleading guilty, in July 1982, 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 the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Fourteenth Amendment's due process guarantee barred his execution. He supported this claim with 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.
Did Herrera's showing of innocence entitle him to federal habeas relief?
The United States Supreme 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. The State met its burden of proving at trial that the inmate was guilty of the capital murder beyond a reasonable doubt. 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. Texas' refusal to entertain Herrera's newly discovered evidence eight years after his conviction did not transgress any principle of fundamental fairness.