WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a prisoner who presents credible evidence of his innocence can overcome a procedural barrier that he waited too long to go to court.
Federal law dictates that a state prisoner has one year from the time he is convicted to petition federal courts to say his conviction violated his constitutional rights — for instance, that he was deprived of effective counsel.
But Justice Anthony Kennedy joined with the court's liberal wing in ruling 5-4 that barring someone who has a credible claim of innocence from filing a habeas petition would be a miscarriage of justice.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote for the majority, stressed that such instances would be rare. "The miscarriage of justice exception, we underscore, applies to a severely confined category: cases in which new evidence shows it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted" the petitioner, she wrote.
Besides Kennedy, Ginsburg was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a blistering dissent for his fellow conservatives. He said that Congress was specific in writing the one-year limitation into the law, and that the court's exception was "a flagrant breach of the separation of powers." He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The case arose when a Michigan prisoner serving a life term for murder came forward with sworn statements from three witnesses who said another man was the murderer. But the defendant, Floyd Perkins, had waited five years to reopen his appeal.