Why The Justice System Doesn’t Allow Evidence Proving Innocence From Ever Being Examined
Although our justice system is the best one on the planet, it’s far from perfect, and has its flaws. Occasionally those flaws contribute not only to the innocent being convicted, but also serve to prevent them from ever having any post-conviction relief.
Exculpatory evidence that could exonerate a truly innocent inmate stands a very good chance of NEVER being examined if artificial deadlines imposed by the courts weren’t adhered to rigorously.
This case is one of those rare examples in which an innocent young man sits in prison while the courts have refused to even consider a confession letter of the actual perpetrator – along with mounds of other exculpatory evidence – from ever being examined, simply because Ryan’s attorney filed his appeal 35 days too late.
This guest blog post attempts to explain in layman’s terms the complex legal process and rulings, which values more highly the timing of an appeal being filed over the evidence proving actual innocence.
WHEN INNOCENCE IS TRUMPED BY THE INCOMPETENCE OF COUNSEL
By Jared M. Villery
A battle has raged for nearly a decade to free an unjustly incarcerated innocent inmate, Ryan Madden. If you’ve had a chance to peruse this site, you know that in 2006 Ryan Madden was wrongfully convicted of two armed robberies that were actually committed by another man. The testimony of a single eyewitness to each incident led to Ryan’s convictions. You may ask, “If someone said they saw him, then how is he innocent?”
Well, the simple answer is that science and other evidence objectively prove that Ryan couldn’t possibly have committed the crimes in question.
This is not the first time that an innocent person has been imprisoned based on a witnesses’ unforgivable error, nor, unfortunately, will it likely be that last time such an unthinkable event occurs.
My name is Jared Villery, and I began handling Ryan’s case at the end of 2010. The evidence of Ryan’s innocence was so clear to me that I took the case on right away. But thanks to the preventable errors made by Ryan’s appeal lawyer, he would end up never getting his day in court. This is due SOLELY to missed filing deadlines.
Attacking a Criminal Conviction
In order to understand how such a ridiculous technicality could deny an innocent man justice, your need to know a little bit about how a conviction is challenged. A conviction can be attacked in both state and federal court, but in order to challenge in federal court, you must first go through the state court process.
There are two different methods used to contest the validity of a criminal verdict in the California state courts. The first is a direct appeal. When going that route, you can only raise arguments about violations of your rights that can be found in the trial record (i.e.-what the Court Reporter writes down, jury instructions, etc.).
So, even if you have some kind of new evidence, it’s irrelevant to your appeal because new evidence cannot be introduced at this phase of the appeal. If the appellate court denies your appeal, you have a little over a month to ask the California Supreme Court to review the denial. If that is unsuccessful, your appeal claims are done in the state courts.
On the other hand, when you have any claims based on new evidence, such as evidence that wasn’t used or available during your trial, you can file a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Superior Court. As was the case for Ryan, the most common type of habeas corpus claim is based on ineffective counsel. So, if your trial attorney failed to investigate your innocence, you would attack your conviction via habeas corpus.
If the Superior Court denies habeas relief, you file a new petition in the Court of Appeal, and do the same thing in the California Supreme Court if the Appellate Court denies you. Only after you’ve raised your claims in the highest state court can you move on to seek relief in the federal courts.
What you must also realize is that, while an appeal and state habeas petition are technically a method of challenging a conviction, state courts almost never grant relief. Maybe 1%-2% of state court decisions result in reversals that lead to new trials: and about another 17% lead to sentence modifications (many times resulting in longer prison terms).
Even in the face of clear demonstrations of innocence, or constitutional violations, state courts regularly let convictions stand. So, for decades, it has been the domain of the federal courts to ensure that criminal defendants’ rights were more vigorously protected. This is why it was so important for Ryan’s case to receive federal court review.
The Federal Statute of Limitations
Before 1996, a prisoner had no deadline to pursue relief in federal court following his unsuccessful pursuits in state court. However, after the tragic events of the Oklahoma City bombing, Congress hastily passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”). This was done in an alleged effort to speed the States’ ability to carry out death sentences when they had been imposed.
Unfortunately, the only thing AEDPA’s passage did was to close the Courthouse doors to almost all but the most privileged. Prisoners now had a one-year statute of limitations to seek federal court intervention in their cases. When that deadline isn’t met, the Court is required to completely disregard any constitutional claims filed late; even if it’s beyond question that a prisoner’s rights have been violated. The fact that roughly 98% of these cases are handled by prisoners themselves is irrelevant in the eyes of the Court.
One of the major problems with the federal limitations period is how it interacts with a prisoner’s attempts to first seek relief in state court, which he is required to do. That one-year period doesn’t start to run until a conviction is final (meaning after the direct appeal is over).
A great deal of confusion has arisen about when that occurs. Generally, the limitations period is triggered in one of three ways:
1) if the appellate court rejects the appeal and there’s a failure to pursue the appeal to the California Supreme Court triggering the one-year period which begins 40 days after the appellate court denial,
2) if the appeal is brought to the California Supreme Court, is denied, and no review is sought in the U.S. Supreme Court triggering the one-year period to begin 90 days after the California Supreme Court denies the appeal, or
3) If you ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the California Supreme Court denial, your one-year period begins the day after the U.S. Supreme Court rejects your case.
How Ryan’s Appeal Attorney Ruined His Case
Any attorney worth his salt is aware of the constraints to seeking federal review that I’ve set forth above; but few prisoners are aware of those time constraints until it is too late. Moreover, any decent appeal attorney knows how important it is to protect his client’s interests by ensuring that his claims are raised in the California Supreme Court, as it is a requirement that must be met before going to federal court. Despite this, it was at this juncture in Ryan’s case that his appeal attorney made the first of two HUGE mistakes.
After the appellate court denied Ryan’s appeal, his attorney failed to pursue the appeal in the California Supreme Court. This meant that Ryan’s one-year federal court filing deadline began to run a mere 40 days after the appellate court’s denial. If the case had been presented to the California Supreme Court, Ryan would have had at least another 3 to 6 months to seek federal relief. This would have brought Ryan’s federal court filings within the limitations period.
Yet even with this blunder, the attorney still could have saved things during the pursuit of habeas corpus relief. At the same time that Ryan’s appeal was ongoing, his appellate attorney conducted the investigation into Ryan’s innocence that the trial attorney should have pursued. This led to the vast amount of evidence proving Ryan’s innocence. Based on the investigation, appellate counsel filed a habeas petition in the court of appeal while Ryan’s direct appeal was still pending. However, on the same day that Ryan’s appeal was denied, the appellate court also denied his habeas petition.
It was at this point that the attorney made his second HUGE mistake.
Although the one-year deadline for Ryan to file in federal court had started to run, there is a provision in the AEDPA that allows the clock on the deadline to temporarily stop running while a prisoner is pursuing habeas corpus relief in the state courts. The clock even remains stopped during any interval period, from the day a lower state court denies a habeas petition until the day that the next petition is filed in a higher state court.
There is one complication with this stopped clock provision. You can’t unreasonably delay your progression from one state court to the next. If you do, the provision no longer applies and a federal court that looks back on the situation will say that the clock was never stopped because of your unreasonable delay. This is a big problem for California prisoners like Ryan because that state doesn’t have a set time limit for filing habeas petitions. It just tells you that the petition must be filed within a “reasonable time”. “What’s reasonable?” you may ask. Well, therein lies another problem. Many different courts have ruled many different ways on the matter; until the U.S. Supreme Court gave some guidance on the question in the 2006 case of Evans v Chavis.
In the Evans case, the Supreme Court ruled that any filing delay beyond 30 to 60 days was unreasonable, unless you had a very good explanation for the delay. This was decided at least two years before Ryan’s situation arose, but, nevertheless, his attorney still fumbled the case again.
Instead of filing Ryan’s next habeas petition in the California Supreme Court within the 30 to 60 day period found reasonable by the U.S. Supreme Court (following the appellate courts denial of Ryan’s first petition), Ryan’s attorney waited 15 months after that denial to file the next petition. The attorney never told Ryan or his family about the need to file within that 30 to 60 day period while they relied on the competence of counsel to protect Ryan’s rights.
As a direct result of counsel’s filing delay, when I took Ryan’s case to federal court, the Judge ruled that the clock for his federal deadline had never stopped running since Ryan’s attorney had unreasonably delayed filing the second petition in the California Supreme Court. It was for this reason Ryan would never get his constitutional claims heard in federal court.
Had Ryan’s appellate attorney adhered to the most basic rules of criminal appellate advocacy, we could easily have filed in federal court well within the federal limitations period giving us an opportunity to present an extremely strong case demonstrating the gross incompetence of Ryan’s trial attorney in failing to conduct any investigation into his innocence, warranting the reversal of Ryan’s conviction.
There is still much more to this story. So look for my next post where I’ll describe how we fought to overcome the timeliness issue. The heart of the story is found in our fight to convince the federal court of Ryan’s innocence.
Yours in the battle for Justice,
Jared M. Villery