On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Fifth Circuit Court Below: 306 F. 3d 257
Respondent was charged with and convicted of felony theft. Based on two prior convictions, he was also charged as a habitual offender. Under Texas' habitual offender statute, a defendant convicted of a felony is subject to a sentence of 2 to 20 years if (1) he has two prior felony convictions, and (2) the conviction for the first prior offense became final before commission of the second. Texas law requires the State to prove the habitual offender allegations to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt at a separate penalty hearing. The jury here convicted respondent of the habitual offender charge, and the judge sentenced him to 16½ years. As it turned out, the evidence presented at the penalty phase showed that respondent had committed his second offense three days before his first conviction became final, meaning that he was not eligible for the habitual offender enhancement. No one, including defense counsel, noted the discrepancy -- either at trial or on direct appeal. Respondent first raised the issue in a request for state post-conviction relief, arguing that the evidence at the penalty hearing was insufficient to support the habitual offender conviction. The state court rejected his sufficiency of the evidence claim on procedural grounds, because he had not raised the issue earlier; the state court likewise rejected respondent's claim that counsel had been ineffective for failing to object. Respondent renewed his sufficiency of the evidence and ineffective assistance claims in a subsequent federal habeas application. Conceding that respondent was not, in fact, eligible for the habitual offender enhancement, the State nevertheless argued that respondent had procedurally defaulted his sufficiency of the evidence claim. The District Court excused the procedural default because respondent was actually innocent of the enhanced sentence; it thus did not reach the ineffective assistance claim. The Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding that the actual innocence exception applies to non-capital sentencing procedures involving career offenders and habitual felony offenders.
Held: A federal court faced with allegations of actual innocence, whether of the sentence or of the crime charged, must first address all nondefaulted claims for comparable relief and other grounds for cause to excuse the procedural default. Normally, a federal court will not entertain a procedurally defaulted constitutional claim in a habeas petition absent a showing of cause and prejudice to excuse the default. However, this Court recognizes a narrow exception to the general rule when the applicant can demonstrate actual innocence of the substantive offense, Murray v. Carrier, 477 U. S. 478, 496, or, in the capital sentencing context, of the aggravating circumstances rendering the inmate eligible for the death penalty, Sawyer v. Whitley,
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'Connor
Out of respect for finality, comity, and the orderly administration of justice, a federal court will not entertain a procedurally defaulted constitutional claim in a petition for habeas corpus absent a showing of cause and prejudice to excuse the default. We have recognized a narrow exception to the general rule when the habeas applicant can demonstrate that the alleged constitutional error has resulted in the conviction of one who is actually innocent of the underlying offense or, in the capital sentencing context, of the aggravating circumstances rendering the inmate eligible for the death penalty. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U. S. 478 (1986); Sawyer v. Whitley, 505 U. S. 333 (1992). The question before us is whether this exception applies where an applicant asserts "actual innocence" of a non-capital sentence. Because the District Court failed first to consider alternative grounds for relief urged by respondent, grounds that might obviate any need to reach the actual innocence question, we vacate the judgment and remand.
In 1997, respondent Michael Wayne Haley was arrested after stealing a calculator from a local Wal-Mart and attempting to exchange it for other merchandise. Respondent was charged with, and found guilty at trial of, theft of property valued at less than $1,500, which, because respondent already had two prior theft convictions, was a "state jail felony" punishable by a maximum of two years in prison. App. 8; Tex. Penal Code Ann. §31.03(e)(4)(D) (Supp. 2004). The State also charged respondent as a habitual felony offender. The indictment alleged that respondent had two prior felony convictions and that the first -- a 1991 conviction for delivery of amphetamine -- "became final prior to the commission" of the second -- a 1992 robbery. App. 9. The timing of the first conviction and the second offense is significant: Under Texas' habitual offender statute, only a defendant convicted of a felony who "has previously been finally convicted of two felonies, and the second previous felony conviction is for an offense that occurred subsequent to the first previous conviction having become final, ... shall be punished for a second-degree felony." §12.42(a)(2) (emphasis added). A second degree felony carries a minimum sentence of 2 and a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. §12.33(a).
Texas provides for bifurcated trials in habitual offender cases. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann., Art. 37.07, §3 (Vernon Supp. 2004). If a defendant is found guilty of the substantive offense, the State, at a separate penalty hearing, must prove the habitual offender allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. Ibid. During the penalty phase of respondent's trial, the State introduced records showing that respondent had been convicted of delivery of amphetamine on October 18, 1991, and attempted robbery on September 9, 1992. The record of the second conviction, however, showed that respondent had committed the robbery on October 15, 1991 -- three days before his first conviction became final. Neither the prosecutor, nor the defense attorney, nor the witness tendered by the State to authenticate the records, nor the trial judge, nor the jury, noticed the 3-day discrepancy. Indeed, the defense attorney chose not to cross-examine the State's witness or to put on any evidence.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the habitual offender charge and recommended a sentence of 16½ years; the court followed the recommendation. Respondent appealed. Appellate counsel did not mention the 3-day discrepancy nor challenge the sufficiency of the penalty-phase evidence to support the habitual offender enhancement. The State Court of Appeals affirmed respondent's conviction and sentence; the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused respondent's petition for discretionary review.
Respondent thereafter sought state post-conviction relief, arguing for the first time that he was ineligible for the habitual offender enhancement based on the timing of his second conviction. App. 83, 87-88. The state habeas court refused to consider the merits of that claim because respondent had not raised it, as required by state procedural law, either at trial or on direct appeal. Id., at 107, 108. The state habeas court rejected respondent's related ineffective assistance of counsel claim, saying only that "counsel was not ineffective" for failing to object to or to appeal the enhancement. Id., at 108. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals summarily denied respondent's state habeas application. Id., at 109.
In August 2000, respondent filed a timely pro se application for a federal writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §2254, renewing his sufficiency of the evidence and ineffective assistance of counsel claims. App. 110, 118-119; id., at 122, 124, 126-127. The State conceded that respondent was "correct in his assertion that the enhancement paragraphs as alleged in the indictment do not satisfy section 12.42(a)(2) of the Texas Penal Code." Id., at 132, 140. Rather than agree to resentencing, however, the State argued that respondent had procedurally defaulted the sufficiency of the evidence claim by failing to raise it before the state trial court or on direct appeal. Id., at 142-144. The Magistrate Judge, to whom the habeas application had been referred, recommended excusing the procedural default and granting the sufficiency of the evidence claim because respondent was " `actually innocent' of a sentence for a second-degree felony." Haley v. Director, Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice, Institutions Div., Civ. No. 6:00cv518 (ED Tex., Sept. 13, 2001) p. 10, App. to Pet. for Cert. 49a (quoting Sones v. Hargett, 61 F. 3d 410, 419 (CA5 1995)). Because she recommended relief on the erroneous enhancement claim, the Magistrate Judge did not address respondent's related ineffective assistance of counsel challenges. App. to Pet. for Cert. 50a-52a. The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's report, granted the application, and ordered the State to resentence respondent "without the improper enhancement." Id., at 36a-37a (Oct. 27, 2001).
The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, holding narrowly that the actual innocence exception "applies to non-capital sentencing procedures involving a career offender or habitual felony offender." Haley v. Cockrell, 306 F. 3d 257, 264 (2002). The Fifth Circuit thus joined the Fourth Circuit in holding that the exception should not extend beyond allegedly erroneous recidivist enhancements to other claims of non-capital factual sentencing error: "[T]o broaden the exception further would `swallow' the `cause portion of the cause and prejudice requirement' and it `would conflict squarely with Supreme Court authority indicating that generally more than prejudice must exist to excuse procedural default.' " Id., at 266 (quoting United States v. Mikalajunas, 186 F. 3d 490, 494-495 (CA4 1999)). Finding the exception satisfied, the panel then granted relief on the merits of respondent's otherwise defaulted sufficiency of the evidence claim. In so doing, the panel ...