Friday, September 30, 2005

Habeus Corpus

From yesterday's BJ: Nathaniel Lewis gets paid.

Nathaniel Lewis, a former University of Akron freshman whose rape conviction was overturned because of passages written in his accuser's diary, has received a record settlement from the state.
The wrongful incarceration settlement approved Tuesday in the Ohio Court of Claims pays Lewis $662,000 for the five years he spent in prison before his conviction was overturned in 2002.

This story provides a good lens for considering a bill before congress that would limit criminal defendants' access to federal courts.

The BJ story recaps the underlying facts fairly well: an acquaintence rape prosecution, the victim's diary sent to the defendant, statements in the diary that suggest a motive to lie, the trial judge refusing to admit the diary.

A couple of legal points to fill in the gaps. The trial judge relied on Ohio's rape shield law which excludes evidence regarding the victim's past sexual history:
Evidence of specific instances of the victim's sexual activity, opinion evidence
of the victim's sexual activity, and reputation evidence of the victim's sexual
activity shall not be admitted under this section unless it involves evidence of
the origin of semen, pregnancy, or disease, or the victim's past sexual activity
with the offender, and only to the extent that the court finds that the evidence
is material to a fact at issue in the case and that its inflammatory or
prejudicial nature does not outweigh its probative value. § 2907.02(D)
In the proffered evidence, the evidence of past sexual history was inextribably enmeshed with the motive evidence. The judge excluded it and the conviction held up on appeal up to the Ohio Supreme Court.

So end of story, right?

Not so fast. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution includes a right to put on defense evidence: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor . . ." After the state appeals were exhausted, Lewis's defense team filed for Habeus Corpus relief in the Federal courts. The Sixth Circuit found that the rape shield law, as applied in this case, violated Lewis's compulsory process rights.

Coincidently, Congress is currently considering legislation that would restrict Federal Habeus jurisdiction: "[t]he Streamline Procedures Act only allows for federal review of convictions based on new proof of what the bill calls 'actual innocence.'"(emphasis mine.)

Under this law, from what I can see, Nathaniel Lewis wouldn't have an opportunity to challenge the Constitutionality of his conviction. Aside from the three people left on the planet who think he's guilty, no one can feel good about such a prospect.

Habeus reform is a hot topic because of the death penalty. Defense attorneys admittedly game the habeus system to drag out appeals and keep their clients, you know, alive. Setting the question of capital litigation reform aside, in noncapital cases no one games the system. The object there is to get your client out as soon as possible. Restricting habeus access outside of capital litigation is dangerous nonsense.


Anonymous said...

At the very least, you seem fair. I'm the rape victim at the center of all this... after all these years, I'm willing to talk- to an unbiased person who will first weigh facts and THEN form an opinion. Send me a message/comment to if you're interested in discussing. Thank you!