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2nd Cir. Grants Equitable Relief for 11-Year-Old Habeas Petition

By Robyn Hagan Cain on July 10, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

After 20 years in prison, Hector Rivas could get another shot at a trial, reports Thomson Reuters News & Insight.

Monday, a Second Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that a showing of actual innocence trumps the §2244(d) statute of limitations in a habeas appeal.

Hector Rivas is currently serving a life sentence for the second-degree murder of his former girlfriend, Valerie Hill. The murder occurred in 1987; he was convicted in 1993. Rivas filed a habeas petition in federal court in 2001, claiming that a constitutional error at his criminal trial made his imprisonment unlawful.

The constitutional error was pretty significant, according to The Wall Street Journal. The panel noted that Rivas had shown through the essentially unchallenged testimony of a respected forensic pathologist that the victim "was almost certainly killed at a time when he had an uncontested alibi, and not earlier, as the prosecution had contended at his trial."

Rivas asserted that District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick asked the local medical examiner to push back the victim's estimated time of death by one day; a time when Rivas had no alibi.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals didn't examine the merits of Rivas's constitutional claims; only whether his petition for a writ of habeas corpus should be permitted under a new evidence or equitable tolling exception.

The appellate court found that the petition was untimely, and not entitled to equitable tolling, but concluded that Rivas had successfully presented a "gateway" showing of actual innocence under the Supreme Court's Schlup v. Delo standard. In Schlup, the Court ruled that a petition could proceed despite being procedurally barred if a defendant made a credible and compelling claim of actual innocence.

The court also concluded, as a matter of first impression in the circuit, that the gateway showing entitled Rivas to an equitable exception from the limitations period set forth in §2244(d).

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals remanded Hector Rivas' habeas petition to the district court. Should that court decide to refer the matter to a magistrate judge, the appellate court noted that case should not be reassigned to Magistrate Judge David Peebles.

Though the Second Circuit didn't question Judge Peebles' impartiality, the panel -- noting that Fitzpatrick is godfather to Judge Peebles' daughter -- decided that it would be best to avoid the appearance of impartiality.

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