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Iowa Supreme Court Announces Actual Innocence Claim Is Freestanding Claim That Can Be Made Even After Guilty Plea

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Iowa adopted and announced a new rule that characterizes claims of actual innocence as freestanding claims under Iowa’s postconviction-relief statute, regardless of whether the applicant has knowingly and voluntarily pleaded guilty and thereby overturning its prior cases that had barred relief under those facts.

“What kind of system of justice do we have if we permit actually innocent people to remain in prison?” asked Justice David Wiggins for the Court, before overturning its prior cases that prevented freestanding actual innocence claims to be raised in a postconviction-relief action. “It is time that we refuse to perpetuate a system of justice that allows actually innocent people to remain in prison.”

Jacob Schmidt pleaded guilty in 2007 to charges of assault with intent to commit sexual abuse and incest, under a plea agreement, after he was accused of sexual conduct with a minor relative. The same day, the district court, finding that Schmidt’s plea was knowing and voluntary, sentenced him to no more than seven years in prison.

In 2014, Schmidt filed an application for postconviction relief based on the alleged victim’s recantation of his story to police, claiming, “I was not guilty. I was scared so I pled guilty because I was facing over 50 years.” The district court granted the State’s motion for summary judgment, and the court of appeals affirmed, holding that Schmidt’s guilty plea prevented his challenge. The Iowa Supreme Court characterized the court of appeals’ ruling as meaning “Schmidt waived his claim of actual innocence by pleading guilty.” The Supreme Court granted further review and reversed.

Iowa Code § 822.2 provides in part that a person convicted of an offense may file for postconviction relief if the conviction or sentence was in violation of the U.S. or Iowa Constitutions, Iowa law, or if “there exists material facts, not previously presented and heard, that requires vacation of the conviction or sentence in the interest of justice.” Article I, Section 9 of the Iowa Constitution prohibits deprivation of liberty without due process, and Article I, Section 17 prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The Iowa Supreme Court has held that the Iowa Constitution affords individuals greater rights than the U.S. Constitution.

Schmidt’s freestanding actual innocence claim fits both provisions of the statute and Iowa Constitution, the Court held. While a defendant’s guilty plea is a “solemn” admission that he cannot revoke later, “the time has come to reevaluate this law in regards to an actual innocence claim,” the Court said.

Schmidt made two arguments. First, the incarceration of actually innocent people implicates procedural due process and violates the Iowa Constitution. “An innocent person has a constitutional liberty interest in remaining free from undeserved punishment,” the Court said. This type of claim would be cognizable under § 822.2(1)(a). Second, the conviction of an innocent person infringes on the “interest of justice” under § 822.2(1)(d), precisely because it violates the Iowa Constitution and fits under that provision as well.

The Court distinguished Schmidt’s freestanding actual innocence claim from the “gateway” actual innocence claim described in Schlup v. Delo, 513 U.S. 298 (1995). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an actual innocence claim accompanied by assertions of constitutional violations at trial was “not itself a constitutional claim, but instead a gateway” to allow those constitutional claims to pass through without being procedurally barred. A freestanding actual innocence claim, on the other hand, is itself the substantive basis for relief.

The Iowa Supreme Court explained that the new rule amounts to this: “For an applicant to succeed on a freestanding actual innocence claim, the applicant must show by clear and convincing evidence that, despite the evidence of guilt supporting the conviction, no reasonable fact finder could convict the applicant of the crimes for which the sentencing court found the applicant guilty in light of all the evidence, including the newly discovered evidence,” even if he pleaded guilty. “Clear and convincing” requires a finding of more than “more likely than not,” but less than “beyond reasonable doubt.”

The Court also found that Schmidt’s freestanding actual innocence claim was based on evidence that did not exist during the three-year statute of limitations under § 822.3 (the alleged victim’s sworn recantation) and that the evidence was “material” and relevant to his claim. Thus, the Court rejected the State’s argument that Schmidt’s postconviction-relief claim was time-barred.

The Court noted that innocent people plead guilty for all sorts of reasons, so a guilty plea should not bar someone from challenging that plea with a claim of actual innocence. “Pleading guilty does not automatically mean the defendant is actually guilty,” the Court observed. As such, the Court announced that “we overrule our cases holding that defendants may only attack the intrinsic nature—the voluntary and intelligent character—of their pleas.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court vacated the decision of the court of appeals and reversed the judgment of the district court granting the State’s motion for summary judgment. The Court remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: Schmidt v. State, 909 N.W.2d 778 (Iowa 2018). 

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Schmidt v. State



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