The Courts Are Seriously Debating Whether Innocent Prisoners Should Be Kept in Jail on Technicalities

Yesterday, Michael Wayne Hash, who spent 12 years in a Virginia prison for murder, had all of the charges against him dismissed. A judge found him to be innocent. He's a free man. Not every innocent prisoner is so lucky.

Daniel Larsen, for example. As the LAT reports, he's in prison in California serving a life sentence thanks to the good old "three strikes" law. His first two strikes were burglary convictions; his third strike came when he was convicted of carrying a concealed knife in 1998, after police said they saw him toss a knife under a car after a bar fight.

Larsen's lawyer was incompetent. He called no witnesses on his behalf. A decade later, in 2008, a judge heard from three witnesses who said that another man, not Larsen, threw the knife under the car. A judge found that Larsen was innocent, and should be released.

However: prosecutors objected, naturally. Not only do they still believe that Larsen is guilty; their more pertinent argument is that he filed his legal paperwork woefully late, far past the mandatory deadline, and should therefore be kept in jail. The LAT sums up the legal dispute:

A 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision said that prisoners found to be "actually innocent" should be released even if they had not followed all legal technical requirements. The next year, Congress passed a new law with stringent time limits on when inmates could file habeas corpus cases in federal court. But the nation's highest court has never ruled on whether those deadlines apply in cases in which there is evidence of "actual innocence." Appellate courts across the nation disagree on whether they do.

So, we are having a serious debate in the U.S. justice system over whether prisoners who have been found to be innocent should be kept in jail due to technicalities which having nothing at all to do with guilt or innocence. Which is why Daniel Larsen is still in jail today. And here we are.

[LAT. Photo: AP]