A writ of habeas corpus is often the last resort—the final "Hail Mary"—for prisoners seeking relief. Dubbed the "Great Writ," a writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner before the court to determine the legality of the prisoner's incarceration or detention. This writ, utilized since our country's inception, is protected by the Constitution, and is available to all prisoners, both state and federal.
Federal prisoners seeking habeas corpus relief must proceed under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Section 2255 permits a federal prisoner to move to vacate or set aside his sentence upon the grounds that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States. Federal prisoners may bring an initial habeas corpus motion pursuant to Section 2255 as a matter of right. Thereafter, in order to be heard, any subsequent motion must either present a new rule of constitutional law previously unavailable to the prisoner or newly discovered evidence that would demonstrate innocence of the underlying crime. If these conditions are not satisfied, the prisoner is barred from filing a successive habeas corpus motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.
There is, however, one well-known and often-relied-upon exception to this procedural bar. The Savings Clause, contained within Section 2255, allows a federal prisoner to file a traditional writ of habeas corpus when the remedy provided by Section 2255 is "inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of the detention." This is largely a fact-specific inquiry, as the terms "inadequate" and "ineffective" have not been defined by Congress or interpreted by the Supreme Court. Because of this ambiguity, the application of the Savings Clause is frequently litigated, and the Circuit Courts of Appeal have developed different approaches for determining whether the Clause applies.
In Webster v. Daniels, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit applied the Savings Clause to allow a federal prisoner, Daniel Webster, to present new evidence that would allegedly demonstrate categorical ineligibility for the death penalty. The Seventh Circuit cited two reasons in support of its decision. The first being that that a plain reading of Section 2255 justifies application of the Savings Clause in Mr. Webster's case. The Seventh Circuit also reasoned that Mr. Webster should have the benefit of arguing his ineligibility on the basis of a so-called "new" constitutional ruling. This Comment argues that these justifications fail to support the application of the Savings Clause in Mr. Webster's case. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit's decision in Webster exceeds far beyond the limitations established by relevant Seventh Circuit Savings Clause jurisprudence. The Seventh Circuit's decision in Webster also fails to take into account the objective of 28 U.S.C. § 2255, which raises significant policy concerns.
Allison A. Evans,
Post-Conviction Relief: The Seventh Circuit Applies Savings Clause to Save Death Row Prisoner,
Seventh Circuit Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.kentlaw.iit.edu/seventhcircuitreview/vol11/iss1/4