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Supreme court gives inmates more leeway to challenge convictions

A divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a prisoner who presents credible evidence of his innocence can overcome a procedural barrier that he waited too long to go to court.

Federal law dictates that a state prisoner has one year from the time he is convicted to petition federal courts to say his conviction violated his constitutional rights — for instance, that he was deprived of effective counsel.

But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined with the court’s liberal wing in ruling 5 to 4 that barring someone who has a credible claim of innocence from filing a habeas petition would be a miscarriage of justice.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote for the majority, stressed that such instances would be rare. “The miscarriage of justice exception, we underscore, applies to a severely confined category: cases in which new evidence shows it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted” the petitioner, she wrote.

Besides Kennedy, Ginsburg was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a blistering dissent for his fellow conservatives. He said that Congress was specific in writing the one-year limitation into the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and that the court’s exception was “a flagrant breach of the separation of powers.”

“One would have thought it too obvious to mention that this court is duty bound to enforce AEDPA, not amend it,” wrote Scalia, who was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Ginsburg wrote that evidence of innocence is a “gateway” through which a prisoner may overcome procedural bars to the filing of habeas petitions. But she and the majority made it clear that it may not provide much of a clearing for the man who brought the case to the court.

Floyd Perkins of Michigan was sentenced to life in prison in 1993 for the gruesome murder of his friend Rodney Henderson. Testimony showed that Perkins had told someone else that he intended to kill Henderson and later apologized for the murder. But at his trial, Perkins blamed the killing on a third man who was with them.

Without new evidence, Perkins had only a year under the law to make a federal claim that his attorney had inadequately assisted him. Perkins gathered three affidavits over the years — from his sister, a friend and a dry-cleaning clerk — that he said helped show his innocence. But he did not file his petition until five years after obtaining the third of those statements.

Ginsburg said courts could note such a delay in deciding whether a claim of innocence is credible. She noted that the district judge in Perkins’s case found the evidence he offered inadequate to make the case that no reasonable juror would have convicted him.

The court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which had said Perkins’s petition could go forward, with the observation that “absent cause which we do not currently see,” the district judge’s evaluation of Perkins’s evidence is probably “dispositive.”

Although Ginsburg and Scalia consider themselves best friends on the court, their opinions held nothing back. Scalia said the majority decision was a “blooper reel” of mistakes that “simply ignores basic legal principles where they pose an obstacle to its policy-driven, free-form improvisation.”

Ginsburg responded that the dissent was little more than pages of “bluster” that in the end was intellectually inconsistent.

The case is McQuiggin v. Perkins.

The justices split into the same groupings in a second case decided Tuesday that also gives prisoners more of a chance to challenge their convictions.

Last year, in a case from Arizona, seven members of the court expanded the chances for a prisoner to make a claim of ineffective counsel in federal courts when the state procedures were especially restrictive.

In the case decided Tuesday, the five-member majority said Texas’s system also is unduly narrow.

“The Texas procedural system — as a matter of its structure, design, and operation — does not offer most defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal,” Breyer wrote. “What the Arizona law prohibited by explicit terms, Texas law precludes as a matter of course.”

The court told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit to reconsider the petition of Carlos Trevino, who was convicted of murder.

Roberts and Alito, who voted with the majority in the Arizona case, dissented this time. The questions raised by the new decision, Roberts wrote, “are as endless as will be the state-by-state litigation it takes to work them out.”

The case is Trevino v. Thaler.

In other action, the court declined to get involved in the state of Indiana’s attempt to withhold Medicaid funding from Planned Parenthood. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit struck down Indiana’s law, saying federal law does not allow the restriction. A handful of other states have passed similar laws, and more have considered it as a protest of Planned Parenthood’s support of abortion.

As is customary, the court did not comment on why it will not review the 7th Circuit decision.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.

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