Writ of Habeas Corpus: Functions and Procedures

First codified in England in the early 1600′s, the “writ of habeas corpus” has existed as a legal concept for centuries. “Habeas corpus,” a Latin term, literally means “you have the body” or “produce the body.” Traditionally, a writ of habeas corpus enabled an inmate to seek an order from the king to compel his release on the ground that the incarcerating court lacked jurisdiction.

In the United States, the concept was expanded to include release from any kind of illegal detention. Furthermore, the U.S. Constitution, and many state constitutions, theoretically guarantee habeas corpus as a right and as a procedure. The main focus of this article is the use of the writ of habeas corpus in federal courts by inmates convicted of, and imprisoned for, state crimes.

Function of a Writ of Habeas Corpus

After a criminal is convicted and sentenced in state court, he may challenge the conviction through the state appeals system. If unsuccessful at the state level, he may be entitled to assistance from the federal courts.

The process begins with a petition filed by an individual in custody. The petition is typically addressed to the federal court in the location where the conviction took place. In essence, the petition raises the issue of whether the petitioner’s custody violates the U.S. Constitution or the laws or treaties of the U.S. If the writ has merit, the court will order the petitioner to appear before a court for a determination of whether the imprisonment is lawful.

The AEDPA and Habeas Corpus
Criminal and terrorist acts in the 1990′s, including the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the first World Trade Center bombing, resulted in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). One section of the AEDPA included a reform of federal habeas corpus procedures.

Major provisions of the AEDPA include:

A period of only one year to file a petition for writ of habeas corpus, which usually commences at the end of direct review of the conviction in state courts. This applies only to non-capital cases, not death penalty cases, which have their own procedures. The period does not run (i.e., is “tolled”) while any properly filed, post-conviction relief is being pursued.

The petitioner must have “exhausted” (filed and pursued to conclusion) all state remedies for attacking the conviction, unless no available state corrective procedures exist, or the procedures are rendered ineffective by the circumstances. The state, however, may expressly waive this “exhaustion of state remedies” requirement.

A writ of habeas corpus for a person convicted in state court “shall not” be granted for any claim that was tried on the merits in the state court. Exceptions exist, however, for decisions that are contrary to established federal law, as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, or for decisions based upon an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the state court. In other words, the writ is not intended to grant the petitioner the opportunity to simply retry the case.

State court determinations of factual issues “shall” be presumed to be correct. As such, the petitioner must rebut them by “clear and convincing evidence.”

If the petitioner failed to develop the basis for his writ in state court, the federal court cannot hold an evidentiary hearing unless: a new, applicable rule of constitutional law is involved which was unavailable before; or the basis for the writ could not have been discovered before, even with diligence; and the new circumstances or law would have led any reasonable fact finder to find the petitioner not guilty.

The filing of successive petitions is strictly limited because this practice is considered abusive.

Habeas Corpus Review in Practice

Commentators have suggested that the AEDPA severely limits the constitutional right of habeas corpus, in that it provides little time to bring a petition and virtually eliminates any habeas corpus review of the merits of a state court conviction. Others have argued that a habeas corpus review was never intended to function as a review of the merits of a conviction. As a result, writs of habeas corpus are seldom granted.