October 21, 2014

Tenth Circuit: Newly Discovered Evidence of Actual Innocence Tolls Time Period for Filing Habeas Claims

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Doe v. Jones on Tuesday, August 12, 2014.

John Doe, a federal prisoner, was convicted of first-degree murder in Oklahoma and sentenced to life without parole. He was separately convicted in federal court of bank robbery, which took place in connection with the Oklahoma murder. His direct appeal to the murder conviction was unsuccessful and he did not appeal further or file a habeas petition in federal court. While serving the federal life sentence in Texas, he was convicted of murdering a fellow inmate and sentenced to death.

Following the imposition of the death sentence, Doe contends that new evidence came to light that established his actual innocence for the Oklahoma murder and federal robbery. He filed a petition for post-conviction relief in state court and the instant § 2254 petition in federal court two days before the expiration of the one-year statute of limitations for habeas petitions. He also filed a motion to stay the federal § 2254 petition pending outcome of the state court case. He raised the actual innocence claim both as a new constitutional claim and a “gateway” to introduce time-barred constitutional claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel and suppression of exculpatory evidence. The district court judge, adopting the recommendations of a magistrate, dismissed the § 2254 petition without prejudice. It also denied his motion to alter and amend judgment and his request for a certificate of appealability.

The Tenth Circuit reviewed prisoners’ requirements to exhaust all state remedies in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rhines v. Weber, 544 U.S. 269 (2005). The Tenth Circuit discussed that before Rhines and before the enactment of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, there was no time limit for filing federal habeas petitions and there was no need for prisoners to raise all claims in state court prior to filing in federal court. However, Rhines and the AEDPA limited these filings and required habeas petitions to be filed within one year of the date the judgment became final. Circuit case law suggested that petitioners nearing the end of the one-year limitations period should file their state court claims and also file § 2254 petitions in the federal district court, asking the district court to stay the proceeding until resolution of the state court claims in order to preserve their federal remedies. Based on a 2010 Tenth Circuit opinion, the magistrate in this case determined that the limitations period would be tolled by the actual innocence claim so a stay was not warranted. During the pendency of this appeal, the Supreme Court decided that a credible showing of actual innocence provides an outright equitable exception to AEDPA’s statute of limitations. Therefore, the petitioner in this case does not have a legitimate concern that his federal claims will be time-barred.

The district court’s dismissal was affirmed.

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