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Innocence Project Director Speaks Out About Federal Post-Conviction Issues

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An op-ed piece in the National Law Journal this month discusses flaws in the federal habeas corpus process that can keep innocent people in prison. Co-written by Barry C. Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, the article describes cases in which innocence claims were procedurally barred.

In one case, Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald, a Green Beret physician, was convicted in 1979 for the 1970 murder of his wife and two daughters near Fort Bragg, NC. DNA found in “strategically important locations” at the crime scene did not match his profile or any of the victims’, and a woman named Helena Stoeckley reportedly confessed to the murders. Yet MacDonald is still in prison, since the crime took place on an Army base and therefore under federal jurisdiction, and the federal appeals process has presented significant roadblocks to his innocence claims. Each piece of evidence has been reviewed separately, instead of looking at them as a whole, so each claim has been denied based on insufficient evidence. MacDonald has just been granted a review of the “evidence as a whole” in his case, so after 32 years in prison, he may finally have a chance to be freed.

The article contrasts MacDonald’s case with that of Gregory F. Taylor, wrongfully convicted of murdering a prostitute in Raleigh, NC, in 1991. In 2006, when North Carolina established the Innocence Inquiry Commission, Taylor’s was the first case to be examined. After the Commission brought attention to faulty blood tests and erroneous testimony, Taylor was exonerated in 2010.

The federal procedures that govern habeas petitions have kept legitimate claims of actual innocence from being heard. This article argues that as states institute new policies regarding wrongful convictions and reopening old cases, the federal system should be reviewed as well in order to keep cases like that of Dr. Jeffrey McDonald from taking decades to be resolved.

Read the article:
National Law Journal – Federal habeas corpus & actual innocence

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