SCOTUS Conviction Ruling Already Harming Innocent People, Lawyers Say


In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in some instances, incarcerated people can be barred from filing multiple claims of innocence, even if they did not commit the crime for which they’re in prison. Federal defense attorneys told The Appeal the ruling is already causing harm.

Before last month, it was already difficult for federal prisoners to prove their innocence in court. But now, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Jones v. Hendrix, many innocent people may find it next to impossible to have their sentences reduced or convictions overturned. In the 6-3 ruling, the nation’s highest court restricted the right of habeas corpus—the right to not serve unlawful imprisonment—by stating that imprisoned people who have already filed for post-conviction relief can be barred from filing a second time, even if they’re innocent of the crime for which they’ve been incarcerated.

“People who are legally innocent of a crime—or legally innocent of a sentencing enhancement—are now destined to serve the entirety of their sentence in prison,” Alison Guernsey, the director of the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa College of Law, told The Appeal.

In 1996, during the tough-on-crime era, President Bill Clinton signed the sweeping Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). That law dramatically limits people’s right to challenge their sentences and convictions. Over the years, the Court has repeatedly interpreted AEDPA in ways that narrow an incarcerated person’s already slim avenues for relief. Now with Jones, the Court has eliminated opportunities for some innocent prisoners.

The Court ruled that if a person has already filed for post-conviction relief, they cannot file another petition based on a change in how courts interpret a statute. This restriction applies even if a person is imprisoned for conduct that is no longer considered a crime or if a person received a much longer sentence than they would if they committed the crime today.

“A prisoner who is actually innocent, imprisoned for conduct that Congress did not criminalize, is forever barred…from raising that claim, merely because he previously sought post-conviction relief,” Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in their dissent. “By challenging his conviction once before, he forfeited his freedom.”

Geremy Kamens, the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, told The Appeal that, before Jones, whenever the Supreme Court issued a decision that “narrows the scope of the federal criminal statute,” attorneys in his office would check to see if the ruling impacted any of their clients. But in light of Jones, those people are likely barred from returning to court, despite their innocence.

“If you have filed [a post-conviction challenge] already, then you’re out of luck,” Kamens said. “So you are actually statutorily innocent of your alleged crime, but the Supreme Court said, ‘Too bad for you. You were convicted at a time when we hadn’t recognized that.’”

It’s difficult to determine how many people will be affected, but it’s likely in the hundreds, Guernsey said. She added that some prisoners are serving sentences that would be decades shorter if convicted today.

“The Jones v. Hendrix decision really values finality over accuracy,” she said. “It values efficiency over fairness.”