News Release ~ 05/18/1998

'Actual Innocence' May Trigger Release

Washington, DC (May 18, 1998) -- In a decision that could affect hundreds of prisoners across the country, the U.S. Supreme Court today decided that a 1995 case which defined "using or carrying" a firearm in relation to certain crimes may be retroactively applied. Even prisoners who pleaded guilty prior to the 1995 case, Bailey v. United States, should be allowed to show that they are actually innocent of the crime as now defined by the Court, the Chief Justice says in today's decision, Bousley v. United States.

"Although Congress severely restricted a prisoner's access to federal courts when it gutted habeas corpus two years ago, there is still room to argue actual innocence," said Gerald B. Lefcourt, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). "Before Bailey, prosecutors and courts interpreted the firearm statute far too broadly, and hundreds of federal prisoners were convicted by the court or pleaded guilty and are serving mandatory firearms sentences, when in actuality no firearm was used in the offense. What this means for Bousley, and hundreds of others, is that he will get his chance to prove that the conduct that formed the basis of his guilty plea wasn't illegal."

In another decision today, the Court held that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) does not bar a death row inmate from re-raising a claim for relief if the prior claim was dismissed on a technicality (Stewart v. Martinez-Villareal). "Since the AEDPA essentially limits prisoners to a single bite of the habeas 'apple,' to hold that dismissal of a habeas corpus petition on technical grounds bars him from properly raising his claim would mean that his claim would likely never be heard, no matter how meritorious," Lefcourt observed. "That could lead to some horrible miscarriages of justice." 

Ronald H. Weich and Bonnie Robin-Vergeer, of the Washington, D.C. firm Zuckerman, Spaeder, Goldstein, Taylor and Kolker, authored the joint amici curiae brief in Bousley on behalf of NACDL and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Edward M. Chikofsky, New York, and Mark E. Olive, of Tallahassee, wrote NACDL's amicus brief in Martinez-Villareal.

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's approximately 9,000 direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal justice system.

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