The DC Circuit "is so small [geographically] that it does not have a federal prison within its boundaries, so prisoner petitions—which make up a notable portion of the docket nationwide on other courts of appeals—are a less significant part of its work." John G. Roberts, Jr., What Makes the D.C. Circuit Different? A Historical View, 92 Va. L. Rev. 375, 376 (2006).
This week, the DC Circuit decided a case that can be traced to one (and in some senses, three) of these relatively few prisoner petitions.
In this opinion, the DC Circuit rejected a request from the estate of a deceased man, Michael Diamen, for a certificate of innocence. Diamen and two other men, all members of the same gang, were convicted of first-degree murder in 1976. Each was sentenced to twenty years to life. In 2000, after unsuccessful appeals in the local DC court system, the three petitioned the federal district court for writs of habeas corpus. Only one of the men was still in prison at the time. The other two, including Diamen, were out on parole. However, Diamen returned to prison on another charge and died there a few months later in 2002.
In 2005, following an evidentiary hearing, the district court granted the writs of the two living men and vacated their convictions, finding actual innocence (based on new evidence including recanted testimony) and constitutional violations at trial. The court excluded Diamen from the ruling due to his death, but expressly presumed that the analysis would have been the same.
The two men and the Estate of Diamen moved for certificates of innocence in 2008, so they could bring wrongful conviction cases in the Court of Federal Claims. The district court granted those motions, except in the case of the Estate, since Diamen's conviction had not been formally overturned.
The Estate appealed, arguing that a formalistic approach is "unreasonable and unfair," as Diamen's conviction would have been overturned had he been alive. However, the DC Circuit affirmed the district court, finding that presumed vindication was not sufficient. Granting the certificate, under statute, requires actual reversal of the conviction, along with actual innocence. The panel also rejected the Estate's argument that the district court could have set aside the conviction when considering the certificate of innocence. Past tense in the statute governing the certificate ("has been reversed or set aside") requires the district court to examine action in a prior proceeding. Finally, the DC Circuit held that the statutory language contemplates a personal remedy, not a remedy for heirs.