E.D. La. Reports Uncertainty of Whether "Actual Innocence" Exception Applies to Noncapital Sentencing Errors

Per Taylor v. Cain, 2008 WL 4186883 (E.D.La. Sep 10, 2008):

Without a showing of cause and prejudice, a petitioner's defaulted claims are procedurally barred unless the application of the bar will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The fundamental miscarriage of justice exception is limited to claims of actual innocence. See Bagwell v. Dretke, 372 F.3d 748, 757 (5th Cir.2004); Lucas v. Johnson, 132 F.3d 1069, 1077 (5th Cir.1998). However, it is unclear to what extent, if any, the "actual innocence" exception is available when the defaulted claim relates merely to an alleged sentencing error in a noncapital proceeding.

In Haley v. Cockrell, 306 F.3d 257 (5th Cir.2002), the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, after noting that a split exists among the circuits on that issue, held that the "actual innocence" exception is available to petitioners in noncapital proceedings who claim they were erroneously sentenced as habitual or multiple offenders. Id. at 265-66. However, the Haley court held that, when barred claims dealt with such alleged sentencing errors, the "actual innocence" requirement is met only when the petitioner shows that "he would have not been legally eligible for the sentence he received." Id. at 264. The Supreme Court subsequently vacated the Haley decision on other grounds and remanded the case to the Fifth Circuit. Dretke v. Haley, 541 U.S. 386 (2004). In so doing, the Supreme Court declined to answer the question of whether the "actual innocence" exception applies to noncapital sentencing errors. Id. at 393-94.

This Court does not attempt to answer the question left open by the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, even if the "actual innocence" exception is available to defaulted claims regarding noncapital sentencing errors, petitioner has failed to establish that he was legally ineligible for the habitual offender sentence he received. Thus, he has not demonstrated that any miscarriage of justice will result from application of the procedural bar.


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