Oh, my. We don’t know how this one got by us – and, it seems, everyone else – for so long.
Years ago (and yes, we increasingly find ourselves using that phrase) we ran through a little case law about “actual innocence” and federal habeas corpus and whatnot. We were forced to point out that there is no such thing as a “free standing” claim to federal habeas relief based on “actual innocence”.
Which is fine, we suppose, since outside of death penalty cases federal habeas relief has ceased to exist. Or maybe it’s better to say “inconsequential” rather than “fine”, because we don’t like that state of the law. We think innocence should always matter.
In any event, we have the New York Court of Appeals telling us that an innocent person, as a matter of law, has no recourse under CPL 440.10(1)(h) based upon actual innocence after a guilty plea. Here’s CPL 440.10(1)(h):
At any time after the entry of a judgment, the court in which it was entered may, upon motion of the defendant, vacate such judgment upon the ground that...... (h) The judgment was obtained in violation of a right of the defendant under the constitution of this state or of the United States;
In support of this conclusion the Court of Appeals (New York Court of Appeals, that is – a state high court, not one of those federal appeals courts) borrows from federal habeas corpus law, citing Schlup v. Delo and Tollett v. Henderson, SCOTUS cases with which we have more than a passing familiarity. The bottom line in the federal system is that actual innocence does not, by itself, form a constitutional basis to vacate a conviction but may form the basis to pierce a procedural bar to habeas relief (such as the draconian statute of limitations the Congress imposed with the AEDPA in 1996) of which there are several thousand.
We jest. There are barely 100.
So what does New York say about “actual innocence”? Bear in mind that the State’s high court can make its own rules about whether actual innocence matters and how much. It is not bound by federal court procedures, and while it is not free to find that there is a federal constitutional right to relief based on “actual innocence” it has the last word on whether the New York State constitution might be a little more generous to criminal defendants who are innocent even if they pleaded guilty.
Nothing doing, though.
Right off the bat, it’s a bad sign when the majority opinion cites all those SCOTUS federal habeas cases. And the majority, by the way, includes the Court of Appeals’ Chief Judge (prosecutor type from beginning to end) whereas the dissent (there are two) are apparently bleeding heart Ivy League types.
We might have more to say about this case later. In the meantime, it is worth noting that, just like the federal habeas cases, the opinion stresses that the factual admissions underlying a guilty plea must have preclusive effect on a later claim of actual innocence. Also like the federal habeas cases, they do not anticipate the impact of such “reasoning” (we put the word in quotes because otherwise we intellectually gag on writing it) on an “Alford plea“, where there are no factual admissions and the defendant asserts innocence. We should think this would make a difference in the reasoning.
Then again, we should think innocence would matter in the first place.