A recent issue before the U.S. Supreme Court involves the late appearance of evidence that could prove a criminal defendant’s innocence. Though many people would assume that if evidence were to arise showing that someone was clearly innocent of the crime they were accused of committing, no matter how late in the game, that it would be allowed to be shown. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 2009 opinion, the Supreme Court has never held that “the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”
The High Court has agreed to hear a case that demonstrates exactly why the issue can be such a tricky one. The case involves a Michigan man, Floyd Perkins, who is serving a life sentence for murder. New evidence was uncovered and a long time passed before it was presented. The issue now is whether it can be raised or whether he should spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.
The details of the incident begin with a house party in 1993. Perkins was in attendance and left with two other men, one of whom was later found dead in the woods, having been stabbed in the head. The third man, a Mr. Jones, testified that Perkins murdered him. Perkins said he parted ways with the other two and later ran across his accuser under a streetlight covered in blood. The jury ultimately believed the accuser, voting to convict Perkins.
While behind bars Perkins worked to collect evidence demonstrating his innocence. There was an affidavit from his sister that said she heard secondhand that Jones had bragged about the killing and had taken bloody clothes to a drycleaner. This was hearsay once removed and from a relative, both of which undermined its value. A few years later Perkins got a second sworn statement from an acquaintance of Jones’ who said Jones confessed to the killing and confirmed the story about the dry cleaning. Then, a few years after that an employee of the dry cleaning store said that a man who looked like Jones had indeed come in to drop off bloody pants to be cleaned.
Finally, with all the information gathered, Perkins asked a federal court to throw out his conviction in 2008. Magistrate Judge Timothy P. Greeley of the Federal District Court in Marquette, Michigan recommended that his request be denied because it was filed too late. Perkins appealed but to no avail. Finally, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling. It ordered Judge Bell of the Federal District Court in Grand Rapids to consider whether the new evidence was credible enough to justify consideration despite Perkins missing a deadline that would have passed back in 2003.
After the Sixth Circuit decision, Michigan appealed to the Supreme Court, and with the support of 10 other states, argued that deadlines are deadlines and ought to be enforced as written. They say the legal requirement is that such claims be pursued diligently. However, Perkins argues that’s exactly what he did. He filed a note with the lower court before the deadline passed explaining that many of his documents and property had been destroyed by prison personnel following a skirmish. He was subsequently denied access to the law library and placed in solitary confinement for nearly five years, making further work on his case all but impossible.
Though the evidence is suggestive, it’s not a slam-dunk for Perkins. Had it been presented at trial it may have made a difference, or maybe not. The question is whether there is enough reason to justify Perkins bringing it forward now. Though Justice Scalia will likely say no, it remains to be seen how the rest of the Court will come down.
If you’ve had a run in with the law and find yourself in need of a St. Louis criminal defense lawyer capable of fighting for your freedom, don’t hesitate to contact our St. Louis criminal law firm today at (314) 863-0500.
Source: “Case Asks When New Evidence Means a New Trial,” by Adam Liptak, published at NYTimes.com.