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Name: Dretke v. Haley
Case #: 02-1824
Court: US Supreme Court
District USSup
Opinion Date: 05/03/2004

A federal court faced with allegations of actual innocence, whether of the sentence or of the crime charged, must first address all nondefaulted claims for comparable relief and other grounds for cause to excuse the procedural default. Normally, a federal court will not entertain a procedurally defaulted constitutional claim in a habeas petition absent a showing of cause and prejudice to excuse the default. The Supreme Court acknowledged the narrow exception to the general rule when the applicant can demonstrate actual innocence of the substantive offense, but declined to reach the issue of whether the actual innocence exception should extend to a noncapital sentencing issue. The Court stressed that the reviewing court should first address any nondefaulted claims in an attempt to avoid invoking the exception to the procedural default. Here, a Texas defendant was improperly sentenced under a recidivist statute after a jury found his prior conviction allegations to be true in spite of the fact that one of the priors had occurred after the commission of the new offense. The prosecution had conceded at oral argument that the defendant had a viable and significant claim of ineffective assistance of counsel to which the prosecution agreed to raise no procedural bar. Thus, the Supreme Court remanded for consideration of that issue. The court specifically declined to address the issue of whether Almandarez-Torres v. United States (1998) 523 U.S. 224 should be overruled or whether it was undermined by Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000) 530 U.S. 466, noting that “these difficult constitutional questions … are to be avoided if possible.”