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Texas Allows Actual Innocence Claim in Non-Capital Habeas Actions

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has held that a habeas corpus applicant may raise a free-standing claim of actual innocence in a state habeas corpus proceeding.

Randolph Roy Sparks, a Texas state prisoner, filed a post-conviction petition for a writ of habeas corpus under Article 11.07, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, alleging he was actually innocent of his felony DWI conviction. Sparks had pleaded guilty, judicially confessed, and agreed to the stipulation of evidence. The indictment alleged that the DWI was a felony because Sparks had prior DWI convictions in 1979 and 1997; it further alleged that Sparks had a prior conviction for aggravated assault, further enhancing the latest DWI to a second-degree felony. Accordingly, Sparks was sentenced to eight years in prison. He did not file a direct appeal.

?At the time of Sparks? offense, on May 5, 2003, former Section 49.09(e) of the Penal Code limited the use of many prior convictions for enhancement purposes after ten years had elapsed,? the court noted. Thus, the 1979 DWI conviction could only be used to enhance the 2003 DWI conviction if Sparks had been convicted within ten years following the 1979 conviction. Absent the 1979 DWI, the 2003 DWI would not have been a felony and would not have been subject to further enhancement with the prior aggravated assault conviction. This was the issue raised in Sparks? habeas corpus petition.

The Court of Criminal Appeals held that when an appellant stipulates to evidence, he cannot then raise the state?s failure to present the evidence to which he stipulated as a ground of error on direct appeal.
However, the situation on habeas corpus review is different. ?On habeas corpus, the burden is on the applicant. When an applicant who has been convicted claims that he is actually innocent, and proves it, he will be relieved from the restraint of the conviction even though he may have pleaded guilty and confessed.?

In this case, Sparks proved that he was not guilty of the felony elements of the offense, which the state did not contest. Therefore, the judgment of guilt was set aside and the case returned to the district court for further proceedings. Attorney Karen K. Suggs of Dallas represented Sparks on habeas review. See: Ex parte Sparks, 206 S.W.3d 680 (Tex.Crim.App. 2006).

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Related legal case

Ex parte Sparks