In Herrera, the Supreme Court held that neither the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment nor the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause bars the execution of a person convicted in a fair trial who later discovers new evidence to support his claim of innocence.
Ten years after Herrera was sentenced to death for killing two police officers, he discovered new evidence suggesting that his brother was actually the murderer. Since Herrera had completed his state court appeals, he attempted to present the new evidence in a habeas corpus proceeding. However, the federal court of appeals refused to stay his execution.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant Herrera relief by a vote of six to three. The Court held that a criminal defendant must demonstrate a constitutional defect in his conviction in order to obtain habeas corpus relief and that the conviction and even the execution of an actually innocent defendant did not itself violate any constitutional provision. The Court observed that an innocent person in Herrera’s position could request clemency from the governor. Finally, the Court concluded that Herrera’s new evidence did not convincingly establish his innocence in any event.
As a result of Herrera, a convicted defendant who obtains new evidence of his or her innocence can obtain relief only if the state courts allow for the belated presentation of new evidence. Recent exonerations of defendants by DNA technology have created more pressure for state courts to allow defendants to present new evidence of innocence.
DAVID A. MORAN
References and Further Reading
See also Cruel and Unusual Punishment (VIII); Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment; Habeas Corpus: Modern History