Herrera v. Collins

Herrera v. Collins

506 U.S. 390 (1989)

Facts and Procedural History:

Petitioner, on the basis of evidence that included two eyewitness identifications, numerous pieces of circumstantial evidence, and his handwritten letter impliedly admitting his guilt, was convicted of the capital murder of police officer Carrisalez and sentenced to death. After pleading guilty to the related capital murder of officer Rucker, petitioner unsuccessfully challenged the Carrisalez conviction on direct appeal and in two collateral proceedings in the Texas state courts, and in a federal habeas petition. Denial of first petition was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and petitioner filed a second petition. He urged in a second federal habeas petition that he was “actually innocent” of the murder of Carrisalez and Rucker and that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments therefore forbid his execution. He supported this claim with affidavits tending to show that his now-dead brother, rather than he, had been the perpetrator of the crime.

Issue Presented to the Court:

Does Herrera's claim of actual innocence entitle him to federal habeas relief?

Outcome of the Case:

The court affirmed the judgment denying federal habeas relief.
It held that the inmate's claim of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence, absent an independent constitutional violation, was not a ground for federal habeas corpus relief. The function of federal habeas courts is not to correct errors of fact, but to ensure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution.

Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that in a capital case a truly persuasive post-trial demonstration of “actual innocence” would render a defendant's execution unconstitutional and warrant federal habeas relief, the threshold to demonstrate “actual innocence” would be extraordinarily high because of the very disruptive effect on the need for finality in capital cases, and the enormous burden that having to retry cases based on often stale evidence would place on the States. Herrera's affidavits are insufficient to meet such a standard, and do not overcome the strong proof of his guilt that was presented at trial.

A proper remedy for claim of actual innocence based on new evidence, which is discovered too late to file a new trial motion, would be not federal habeas relief, but rather executive clemency.