CSU Cleveland-Marshall College of Law’s Appellate Practice Clinic secured an impressive victory in the United States Court of Appeals for The Sixth Circuit to allow the introduction of new evidence in a 24-year old murder case. Appellate Practice Clinic students Brittany May, Susan Oates, Jared Thomson and Lauren Wazevich worked on the Opening Brief and the Reply Brief while Professor Doron Kalir supervised the work and served as Counsel of Record.
“I went to law school wanting to help others, so it is extremely satisfying to be able to help someone, especially in this case where it is most needed,” said Jared. “I wanted to work on real cases in the Clinic, assisting real clients and learning the ins and outs of appellate lawyering. This case wound up being so much more than that, going beyond what I hoped to experience in the Clinic.”
The CSU C|M|LAW Appellate Clinic represented John Lowery, who is serving a life sentence after he was convicted of murder and attempted murder in 1998 for a shooting that occurred in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Lowery was later able to secure new evidence that could prove his innocence: the two eye witnesses who identified him in court recanted, and a new eye witness came forward attesting that she never saw him at the scene during the shooting. Lowery brought a Habeas Corpus petition before the Tennessee District Court, but was denied due to untimeliness.
On appeal in the Sixth Circuit Court, the Clinic argued that the court below erred by wrongly applying McQuiggin v. Perkins, a 2013 Supreme Court case that allows for some judicially-carved exceptions to the one-year statute-of-limitation rule. In particular, Perkins allows for innocence claims to be heard even after the statute of limitations has run, provided that the petitioner submits "new evidence." The lower court below held that Lowery's evidence was not new, since they were presented first in state court.
Accepting the Clinic's arguments in full, the Sixth Circuit wrote in its decision: "whatever new evidence means, the district court erred by concluding that evidence presented to state courts categorically does not qualify. After all, federal law requires habeas petitioners to exhaust their claims in state court before seeking relief in federal court."
Recalling their work on the case, the CSU C|M|LAW students noted how complicated and time consuming appeals litigation is and the importance of diligence in advocating for a client.
“Seeing our work pay off is rewarding beyond words when you factor in how arbitrarily Mr. Lowery’s constitutional rights were denied at the lower court, and how we helped to right a wrong,” said Susan. “Mr. Lowery’s claim of actual innocence based on new evidence really solidified for me that my long-term goal will be to work for an organization such as the Innocence Project or the Public Defender’s Office to help free those who have been wrongfully incarcerated.”
The case is now likely to return to the Tennessee District Court, where the federal judge will be required to assess the new evidence presented by Mr. Lowery and determine whether the innocence gateway claim can prevail.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ full opinion is available here.