The Supreme Court has refused to void a prison sentence of a Texas man who served more than six years for stealing a calculator from a store, even though prosecutors admitted his crime called for a maximum of two years behind bars. The Los Angeles Times said that the justices, by a 6 to 3 vote, said simple claims of injustice or “actual innocence” were usually not the basis for appeals in federal courts. To win in a federal court, defendants must show a “constitutional error” in the handling of their cases, the majority said. Dissenters criticized their colleagues for ignoring “simple justice” in favor of procedural technicalities.
The decision reversed orders that had freed Michael Haley. The case goes back to lower courts to consider whether his mistaken prison sentence was his lawyer’s fault.
The appeal posed the question of whether federal judges may reopen the cases of ordinary state inmates whose guilt or sentence is in doubt. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the high court would continue to adhere to a “rule of restraint” that limited federal judges from reopening state cases.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans called the Texas case “a classic example of a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” said Judge Carl E. Stewart of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although prosecutors had admitted the sentence was an error, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asked the Supreme Court to reverse the rulings that had freed Haley, saying it was “a case about federalism.”