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Declared “Actually Innocent” But Still in Prison

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In May 1999, Philadelphian Terrance Lewis was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the August 6, 1996, second-degree murder of Bernard Howard. Mr. Howard was killed after 3 men broke into his home and shot him in the back of the head. The only eyewitness who testified at trial was a known drug user who had smoked crack shortly before the shooting. The witness told police that then-17 year-old Lewis was among the people who entered the house.

Several years after his conviction, one of Lewis’ co-defendants signed a statement saying that Lewis had nothing to do with the robbery/murder. While that appeal was pending, another witness came forward who said she was outside the house the day Howard was killed, that she saw 3 young men run from the houes immediately after shots were fired, and that Lewis was not one of them.

The trial court denied the petition without a hearing, ruling it was “untimely.” On appeal in the Superior Court, Lewis’ attorney arguably did not comply with filing procedures. The appellate court dismissed the appeal and never ruled on its merits.

Seeking relief in federal court, Lewis filed for habeas corpus. There, the Magisrate Judge held an evidentiary hearing and found that the witnesss tesfitied “credibly and consistently.” More importantly, the judge ruled that Lewis was “actually innocent.” But that was not enough to get relief from a wrongful incarceration. The judge ruled against Lewis, on the ground that he had failed to develop a factual record at the state level to prove his trial counsel’s ineffectivenes. In other words, being “actually innocent” is not enough.

Late last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an opinion denying his request for freedom.

There is no real argument that Terrance Lewis was in fact involved in the crime; he was not. Yet due to some procedural issues, Terrance Lewis remains in prison. Because he did not file his request within a year his sentencing, his claim was denied. However, he didn’t have access to the witness testimony – the evidence that would establish his innocence – until later, so how could he have done so? Lewis appealed that decision but was denied again because the Court never received his statement. The matter then moved from State to Federal Court, which upheld the District Court ruling in its opinion.

This opinion prioritizes procedural difficulties over an individual’s actual innocence. The Court is saying that even though Lewis is innocent–although he committed no crime–it doesn’t mean that he should go free.

Procedural default has taken precedence over truth and justice. An innocent man is in prison because some paperwork didn’t get filed in time, and there’s nothing the Appellate Court will do about it.

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