Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

A Critical Analysis of Actual Innocence after House V. Bell: Has the Riddle of Actual Innocence Finally Been Solved?

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

A Critical Analysis of Actual Innocence after House V. Bell: Has the Riddle of Actual Innocence Finally Been Solved?

Article excerpt


"[I]t is far worse to convict an innocent man than to let a guilty man go free. "1

What amount of evidence and what standard of review are necessary for a federal district court to find that an inmate who has been convicted of murder and sentenced to death qualifies for the "actual innocence" exception to claims that the inmate has procedurally defaulted under federal habeas corpus law? The United States Supreme Court, not for the first time, attempted to provide some guidance in House v. Bell.2 Over twenty years ago, a state court jury convicted Paul House (House) of the murder of Carolyn Muncey (Carolyn) in Union County in rural Tennessee and sentenced him to death.3 House consistently maintained his innocence and sought access to federal relief under habeas corpus law "to pursue constitutional claims that were procedurally barred under state law."4 The actual innocence exception allows inmates that can make a compelling showing of their innocence to bypass the state procedural default rule and proceed with their habeas corpus petitions in federal court.5 The Court held that House met the stringent requirement of the actual innocence exception, and, therefore, he could proceed with his habeas corpus petition in federal court.6

This Note will discuss the analysis that the Court utilized to reach its conclusion and explore the future implications of this decision. The Court drew upon several different principles to reach its final conclusion, which should impact the precedential value of this case.7 Part II of this Note presents an overview of the history of habeas corpus proceedings and traces the development of the actual innocence exception to procedurally defaulted writs of habeas corpus in capital cases. An analysis of the four types of the actual innocence exception follows in Part HI. Part IV discusses the facts and procedural history of House, while Part V summarizes both the majority and dissenting opinions of this case. Part VI provides an analysis of House under current "actual innocence" jurisprudence, and Part VII concludes this Note with a discussion of the future for actual innocence jurisprudence after House v. Bell.


A. Habeas Corpus Doctrine

"The primary function of the [habeas corpus Writ] is to release a person from unlawful imprisonment."8 Congressional acts and federal courts authorize habeas corpus proceedings as a post-conviction remedy for prisoners challenging the validity of their imprisonment under the Constitution.9 Habeas corpus law is one of the most contentious areas of law because it is the only instance in which federal courts can review and overturn state court decisions without giving res judicata effect to those decisions.10

Congress enacted the initial federal statutory version of habeas corpus law in 1789 by way of the Judiciary Act.11 The Judiciary Act allowed "federal courts to issue writs of habeas corpus for prisoners held in federal custody and who alleged that their confinement violated [federal law]."12 Congress extended the habeas corpus doctrine to state court prisoners as well in 1867.13 At present, a prisoner can bring any constitutional claim using habeas corpus with the exception of Fourth Amendment claims.14 The Constitution provides that "[t]he Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it."15

Beginning in 1963, the United States Supreme Court began to instruct lower courts regarding their review of claims that had not been brought in state court proceedings. For example, in Fay v. Noia,16 the Court ordered lower courts to review procedurally defaulted claims except when the petitioner "deliberately bypassed" state court rules to bring the habeas corpus action in federal court.17 The Court also authorized independent fact-finding by federal courts in Townsend v. Sain.18

In Wainwright v. Sykes,19 however, the Burger Court narrowed the reach of the Warren Court's Fay opinion. …

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