506 U.S. 390 (1993), argued 7 Oct. 1992, decided 25 Jan. 1993 by vote of 6 to 3; Rehnquist for the Court, O’Connor, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, and White concurring in parts or in whole, Blackmun dissenting, joined by Stevens and Souter.
The case involved Leonel Torres Herrera, a death-row inmate in Texas, convicted of the 1981 murder of two state police officers. Herrera had an impoverished childhood, an abusive alcoholic father, and a history of post-traumatic stress disorder following service in Vietnam.
Several weeks before his execution, Herrera sought a writ of habeas corpus from the federal courts on the grounds that newly discovered evidence established his innocence. That evidence was a statement from his nephew, Raul Herrera, Jr., who claimed that his father, Leonel's brother, Raul Herrera, Sr., had told him in 1983 that he had killed the police officers. Raul Herrera, Sr., had died the following year. Leonel Herrera also presented statements from three other persons that supposedly corroborated this story. Texas law, however, provided that a motion for a new trial based on previously undiscovered evidence had to be presented within thirty days following conviction. The time had long since elapsed, therefore, under Texas law.
A federal district court judge in Texas, however, stayed Leonel's execution in order to allow state authorities to hear his claim of innocence. A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit immediately lifted the stay, and Herrera then appealed to the Supreme Court with literally hours to go before his execution. In order to stay an execution, the rules of the Court require that five justices agree, and only four did. Yet those four justices were sufficient to permit the Court to hear the case on its merits. A Texas court then granted a stay of execution and the full Supreme Court heard Herrera's appeal many months later.
As was true with the vast majority of death penalty cases, the justices divided sharply. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist rejected Herrera's argument that the thirty-day limit for a new trial violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The states were free to set such limits, and fourteen states had in fact adopted the thirty-day rule. Only two states (New York and New Jersey), the Court noted, placed no time limits.
Rehnquist also concluded that the evidence presented by Herrera fell far short of the level of proof required to secure a new trial. The chief justice left open the possibility that what he called “truly persuasive” evidence might prompt the Court to order a new hearing in such cases, but the general rule stood that a state death-row inmate is not ordinarily entitled to a new hearing in federal court before being executed (p. 417). In the current circumstances, Rehnquist concluded, Herrera's best chance was to seek clemency from the governor, a process that historically had been used to prevent miscarriages of justice when the judicial process had been, as was true in this case, exhausted.