Circuit court ruling ignores justice

Federal prisoners whose last hopes for exoneration rest on advances in DNA technology were dealt a severe setback Wednesday in an outrageously flawed decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court overturned a federal district court ruling and rejected James Harvey’s request for access to the rape kits on which the DNA tests used in his 1990 trial were performed.

The three-judge panel’s majority opinion presents an alarming picture of misapplied precedent, illogical reasoning and a preoccupation with Harvey’s presumed guilt that blinded the court to its decision’s broader ramifications.

The appeals court drew the substance of its decision from the Supreme Court’s 1994 Heck vs. Humphrey ruling, which held that a convicted criminal cannot bring a claim such as Harvey’s, which would “necessarily imply the invalidity of his conviction or sentence,” unless the “conviction or sentence has already been invalidated.” That decision was based on the common-sense principle that a prisoner should not be able to sue the government for imprisoning him unless the prisoner can prove the confinement is unlawful. But in the 4th Circuit’s hands, Heck vs. Humphrey is distorted beyond recognition.

Harvey’s suit did not challenge his conviction, and he argued persuasively that the advanced genetic testing he seeks can conclusively prove his guilt as well as his innocence. But the appeals court ruled that because Harvey only wants the DNA to prove his innocence, his suit is a “first step” in challenging his conviction, which means, as the court paradoxically reads Heck vs. Humphrey, that Harvey must get his conviction overturned before he can ask for the evidence that would allow him to do so.

The court also presents a complex procedural argument designed to show Harvey’s claim, whatever its merits, was not properly presented. The most disturbing portion of this argument is that it was made at all. “While we agree with Harvey that the question of guilt or innocence lies at the heart of the criminal justice system,” the court’s majority wrote, “we also believe that the proper process for raising violations of constitutional rights in criminal proceedings cannot be abandoned … (T)he substance of a claim cannot be severed from the proper manner of presenting it …” The court’s argument is a step backward in the Anglo-American legal system’s centuries-old evolution toward favoring substantive justice over procedural technicalities.

The 4th Circuit has decided it is more important that a trial reach a verdict than that the verdict be the correct one. “The possibility of post-conviction developments, whether in law or science, is simply too great to justify judicially sanctioned constitutional attacks upon final criminal judgments,” the majority wrote. This opinion came only six days after the Innocence Project announced the 100th wrongly convicted person since 1989 to finally be cleared by modern DNA testing.

The American public has a long tradition of outraged responses to criminals walking out of prison on legal technicalities. It should be similarly incensed that the 4th Circuit would prefer to lock away the innocent with no stronger legal basis.