William & Mary Law Review


Federal habeas review of criminal convictions is not supposed to be a second opportunity to adjudge guilt. Oliver Wendell Holmes, among others, has said that the sole question on federal habeas is whether the prisoner’s constitutional rights were violated. By the early 1970s, however, scholars criticized this rights-based view of habeas and sounded the alarm that postconviction review had become too far removed from questions of innocence. Most famously, in 1970 Judge Friendly criticized the breadth of habeas corpus by posing a single question: Is innocence irrelevant? In his view habeas review that focused exclusively on questions of rights in isolation from questions of innocence was misguided.

Over the last forty years the habeas landscape has changed so dramatically—through both statutory and common law limits on the writ—that it is appropriate to ask a very different question: Is guilt dispositive? Both substantive law and habeas procedure have evolved so as to substantially disadvantage a guilty habeas petitioner. In many cases, regardless of the merits of the constitutional claim, strong evidence of guilt is dispositive in ensuring that relief is denied. A recent trilogy of cases—Holland v. Florida, Maples v. Thomas, and most importantly, Martinez v. Ryan—signals a potential shift in the Court’s innocence orientation. This Article explores the potential impact of these decisions and, in particular, argues that they may provide a roadmap for a proceduralist approach to modern habeas review that prioritizes fair procedures over innocence. The impact of Friendly’s call for greater focus on innocence was gradual but profound, and this Article argues that the Martinez trilogy may be similarly important in reversing habeas’s four-decade-long infatuation with innocence.