Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Actual Innocence" Means More Than You Might Think

In 1987, William R. Wilson pled guilty to felony DWI, enhanced by two prior DWIs that he received in 1986 and 1983.  Finding him guilty of third-degree felony DWI, the court sentenced him to be fined $750 and to four years’ probation (which I think is ridiculously low for a 3rd-time DWI, but that’s beside the point).  Less than one year after he was placed on probation, the State sought to revoke the probation and issued a warrant for Wilson’s arrest.  Somehow, he stayed under the radar, eluding arrest for over 19 years until he was finally arrested.  Curiously, when he was arrested, he had changed his name.

In response to his arrest, Wilson filed an Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus claiming that his prior conviction and sentence was “unlawfully obtained.”  He argued that because one of the DWI convictions that the court used for enhancement was not final, he could not be convicted and sentenced to third-degree felony DWI.  The trial court agreed with Wilson and ordered that his 1986 conviction and sentence for felony DWI be vacated.

The State appealed the decision to the 1st District Court of Appeals (Houston), contending that evidence that a prior conviction is not final is not “newly discovered evidence,” but merely newly discovered law (on the part of the defendant).  The State further argued that under a contract theory, Wilson received the benefit of the plea bargain and should now be estopped from challenging the contract on appeal.  The Court of Appeals wasn't buying it and affirmed the trial court’s order vacating the conviction and sentence.

On State’s petition for discretionary review to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the State again asserted that this is not a case of “actual innocence,” but rather ignorance of the law.  The CCA, however, explained that:

For the purpose of this case, and other pending cases in which the issue is the offense of which the accused is, in fact, guilty, the sentence assessed, or both, we will interpret a claim of “actual innocence” to mean “guilty only of” a lesser-included offense or “ineligible for” the sentence assessed, or both.
With that, the CCA clarified that the courthouse doors are open for the habeas applications of not only those appellants that claim “actual innocence,” but also those appellants that may have been “ineligible for” the sentence they received (due, in many cases, to the questionable competence of their trial counsel).

Regarding the issue of estoppel, the CCA held:
Regardless of any benefit that may have accrued as a direct result of the plea agreement, when a defendant has been convicted of an offense for which he claims that he is actually innocent, and he proves it, he will be relived form the restraint of the conviction even though he may have pleaded guilty and confessed…Although appellee may have pled guilty to the felony offense pursuant to a plea agreement, the trial court correctly relieved him from the restraint of the conviction.