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Writ of Habeas Corpus & Reasonable Doubt in a Criminal Trial

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  • 0:06 Writ of Habeas Corpus
  • 1:17 Habeas Corpus and the…
  • 3:33 Rubin Hurricane Carter
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

In a last ditch effort to be free, a person in custody, after exhausting all appeals and motions, may file a writ of habeas corpus requesting further investigation of his constitutional rights in an attempt to be set free.

Writ of Habeas Corpus

If you have ever served as a member of a jury in a criminal case, the thought of sending an innocent man to prison can be hauntingly scary. Although the legal system is designed in such a way that there is little chance that this will happen, the courts have a system in place to allow an imprisoned person to question his incarceration.

A writ of habeas corpus, Latin for 'you have the body,' is a plea filed by an imprisoned person asking the court to determine whether the imprisonment is lawful and justified. A prisoner must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is being falsely imprisoned and that the imprisonment is in violation of his constitutional rights.

A writ of habeas corpus can also be made for several other purposes:

  • To obtain custody of a child
  • To petition for the release of an incarcerated person who is addicted to drugs or is mentally ill
  • To request release of a prisoner who suffers from a disease

To avoid a misunderstanding, it is important to mention that not all state courts operate in the same way. In Maryland, for instance, a writ of habeas corpus cannot be used to obtain custody of a child, whether held captive by its custodial parent or otherwise.

Habeas Corpus & the Constitution

The Constitution provides citizens with rights to certain protections and freedoms in both the 5th Amendment and the 14th Amendment. In the 5th Amendment, any abuse of judicial power constitutes a violation of one's constitutional rights. Equally, the 14th Amendment does not allow the deprivation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without due process, or a requirement by the state to respect all legal rights owed to a person.

Any interference with these rights may be grounds for granting habeas corpus.

There are several common due process grounds the court considers:

  • Misconduct on the part of the prosecution
  • Juror misconduct or malfeasance
  • Counsel was ineffective
  • Miranda rights were not read when arrested
  • Forced self-incrimination
  • Double jeopardy, or being charged for the same crime twice
  • Prisoner was the victim of cruel and unusual punishment

When a person files a writ of habeas corpus, he is essentially filing a petition with the court to be set free. This sounds pretty easy, but it is more involved than just that. In order for a judge to sign off on the writ, a few things need to be in place:

  • The incarceration is in violation of the prisoner's constitutional rights
  • The prisoner exhausted all motions and appeals in lower and federal court
  • The prisoner has the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt

For a judge to grant the writ of habeas corpus, the prisoner must prove a violation. In an interesting shift, if a judge does find sufficient evidence that a person is being unlawfully detained, the burden of proof is switched to the imprisoning person or state. To that end, the state or court that ordered the imprisonment must satisfy the burden of proof to justify the imprisonment.

We learned the prisoner must exhaust all motions and appeals in order to file for a writ of habeas corpus. The filing of the writ should not be confused with an appeal, or a request for the court to review a lower court's decision.

Further, the writ is not a motion, in where a party to the trial asks the court to take specific action against the other party. To better illustrate how habeas corpus works, let's see how the then top-ranked middleweight boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter fought the biggest fight of his life - his fight for freedom.

Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter

Back in 1966, Carter, a prized fighter, and his friend John Artis, were arrested and charged with the murder of three people in New Jersey. Carter and Artis were African-American and the victims were white. Keep in mind the era - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a newly developing piece of legislature. Discrimination was still an issue in the early days of its inception.

Carter and Artis were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. During this time, both men pleaded their innocence, claiming to have been framed because of their race. Even though Carter fought to have the conviction overturned, or reversed from guilty to not guilty, the court denied his argument.

Sometime in 1974, Carter wrote a book about his incarceration called, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, describing the incidents that led to his incarceration.

The book created quite a stir and caught the interest of a few important people, including the New Jersey Public Defender's Office. Granted a new trial, Carter's innocence could not be proven and his sentence stood.

Carter, a fighter by trade, wasn't ready to lay down the legal glove. After all motions and appeals were exhausted, he filed for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. In 1985, Judge H. Lee Sarokin ruled that the second trial was unconstitutional because polygraph evidence was withheld, and it was implied by the prosecution that Carter was guilty merely because of his race.

After the State of New Jersey lost several appeals to remand Carter, he was released with a clean record. This case clarifies a few important things. All motions and appeals must be exhausted before a writ of habeas corpus can be filed with the court, and there must be a clear violation of constitutional rights.

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