SCOTUS Conviction Ruling Already Harming Innocent People, Lawyers Say

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in some instances, incarcerated people can be barred from filing multiple claims of innocence, even if they did not commit the crime for which they're in prison. Federal defense attorneys told The Appeal the ruling is already causing harm.

SCOTUS Conviction Ruling Already Harming Innocent People, Lawyers Say

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in some instances, incarcerated people can be barred from filing multiple claims of innocence, even if they did not commit the crime for which they're in prison. Federal defense attorneys told The Appeal the ruling is already causing harm.

Before last month, it was already difficult for federal prisoners to prove their innocence in court. But now, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Jones v. Hendrix, many innocent people may find it next to impossible to have their sentences reduced or convictions overturned. In the 6-3 ruling, the nation’s highest court restricted the right of habeas corpus—the right to not serve unlawful imprisonment—by stating that imprisoned people who have already filed for post-conviction relief can be barred from filing a second time, even if they’re innocent of the crime for which they’ve been incarcerated.

“People who are legally innocent of a crime—or legally innocent of a sentencing enhancement—are now destined to serve the entirety of their sentence in prison,” Alison Guernsey, the director of the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa College of Law, told The Appeal.

In 1996, during the tough-on-crime era, President Bill Clinton signed the sweeping Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). That law dramatically limits people’s right to challenge their sentences and convictions. Over the years, the Court has repeatedly interpreted AEDPA in ways that narrow an incarcerated person’s already slim avenues for relief. Now with Jones, the Court has eliminated opportunities for some innocent prisoners.

The Court ruled that if a person has already filed for post-conviction relief, they cannot file another petition based on a change in how courts interpret a statute. This restriction applies even if a person is imprisoned for conduct that is no longer considered a crime or if a person received a much longer sentence than they would if they committed the crime today.

“A prisoner who is actually innocent, imprisoned for conduct that Congress did not criminalize, is forever barred…from raising that claim, merely because he previously sought post-conviction relief,” Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in their dissent. “By challenging his conviction once before, he forfeited his freedom.”

Donate to The Appeal

Geremy Kamens, the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, told The Appeal that, before Jones, whenever the Supreme Court issued a decision that “narrows the scope of the federal criminal statute,” attorneys in his office would check to see if the ruling impacted any of their clients. But in light of Jones, those people are likely barred from returning to court, despite their innocence.

“If you have filed [a post-conviction challenge] already, then you’re out of luck,” Kamens said. “So you are actually statutorily innocent of your alleged crime, but the Supreme Court said, ‘Too bad for you. You were convicted at a time when we hadn’t recognized that.’”

It’s difficult to determine how many people will be affected, but it’s likely in the hundreds, Guernsey said. She added that some prisoners are serving sentences that would be decades shorter if convicted today.

“The Jones v. Hendrix decision really values finality over accuracy,” she said. “It values efficiency over fairness.”

For appellate attorneys and their clients, the impact is not hypothetical.

Guernsey says one of her clients, Samuel Hogsett, is serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison and, in her professional opinion, was eligible for resentencing before Jones.

In 2005, an East Alton, Illinois police officer pulled over Hogsett, a 22-year-old Black man, for allegedly not having his license plate illuminated. According to the officer’s later testimony in court, the cop ordered Hogsett out of the car. Hogsett complied, and the cop then asked to search the vehicle. Hogsett consented. The officer says he then found “two small little rocks” of what he believed to be crack cocaine and a gun in the car.

Hogsett was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm, possession with intent to distribute 0.5 grams of crack cocaine, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. The court classified him as an Armed Career Criminal based on his three prior violent felonies. That determination meant that the judge would be required to sentence him to between 15 years to life on the felon in possession of a gun charge; he received 24.5 years on that count alone.

In the years since his conviction, he’s filed several unsuccessful challenges. Then, in 2021, a possibility for relief appeared to open. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Borden v. United States narrowed the definition of what can be considered a violent felony.

Based on that decision, Hogsett filed a habeas petition, which argued that one of his prior convictions no longer qualified. Therefore, he believes he did not have the three prior violent felonies required to qualify as an Armed Career Criminal.

Hogsett is now 40 years old. According to court documents, he has plenty of support on the outside, including his sister, who has promised him a home. Two community organizations have committed to helping him adjust to life outside of prison.

But in light of Jones, those plans may never come to pass. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the federal court that handles cases for Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois, ruled that based on Jones, Hogsett was barred from filing his habeas petition and sent the case back to the lower court with instructions to dismiss. On Tuesday, the lower court dismissed the case.

Attorney Colin Prince has a strikingly similar case—that of Harry Whitman. In 1995, Whitman’s wife was in a car accident that paralyzed her. Whitman, now in his mid-60s, became overwhelmed with medical bills and robbed two banks at gunpoint. He was sentenced to 52 years. Based on his prior convictions from more than a decade and a half before the robberies, the Court classified him as an Armed Career Criminal, which subjected him to a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years.

Whitman filed a habeas petition in 2002, but it was denied. Like Hogsett, the Supreme Court’s subsequent rulings called into question the legitimacy of his status as an Armed Career Criminal. He filed another habeas petition last year.

“Harry Whitman’s sentence is illegal,” Prince, the chief appellate attorney for the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, wrote in that filing. “The question before the Court is whether he’ll die in prison serving it.”

Prince said he felt optimistic about Whitman’s chances before the Jones ruling occurred. On June 15, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington held a hearing in Spokane about Whitman’s case. Several of Whitman’s supporters attended.

“I thought there were very solid indications that the court intended to release Harry,” Prince told The Appeal. “And then Jones.”

On July 12, the judge asked Whitman to show why the case should not be dismissed in light of Jones.

“He can’t. Dismissal is required,” Prince wrote in his response to the court. “With that said, it is nonetheless important to mark the grotesque outcome.”

Whitman has few options left. He’s filed a federal clemency petition asking President Joe Biden for relief. Prince says the case’s original sentencing judge has written a letter of support. But since President Biden took office, he’s granted just 111 requests for sentence reductions out of thousands of petitions. Prince added that the upcoming changes to the federal sentencing guidelines may also offer a “glimmer of hope.” But these possibilities don’t lessen the potentially catastrophic impact of Jones.

“Absolutely, without question, 100 percent—Americans will serve time in American prisons who are innocent,” Prince said.

Support The Appeal

If you valued this article, please help us produce more journalism like this by making a contribution today.