"Actual innocence, if proved, serves as a gateway through which a petitioner may pass whether the impediment is a procedural bar ... or expiration of [a federal law's] statute of limitations, as in this case," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion.
The ruling fell along the court's ideological fault line, with Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the court's four liberals and the court's four conservatives dissenting.
In the underlying case, Rodney Henderson left a party in Flint, Mich., with Floyd Perkins and Damarr Jones on March 4, 1993. Henderson was later found dead on a woodland trail with stab wounds to the head.
Perkins was convicted of murder, with Jones as the principal prosecution witness. Jones said Perkins and the victim went off together and he later saw blood on Perkins' clothes.
Perkins was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His conviction became final in 1997.
The 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act gives a state prisoner one year to file a federal petition for constitutional review, starting from "the date on which the judgment became final."
But if the petition alleges newly discovered evidence, the filing deadline is one year from "the date on which the factual predicate of the claim" -- the new evidence -- "... could have been discovered through ... due diligence."
More than 11 years after his conviction became final, Perkins filed his federal petition, alleging, among other things, ineffective assistance of trial counsel. "To overcome AEDPA's time limitations, he asserted newly discovered evidence of actual innocence, relying on three affidavits, the most recent dated July 16, 2002, each pointing to Jones as the murderer," Ginsburg said.
Eventually, a federal appeals court, acknowledging that Perkins' petition was "untimely" and that he hadn't diligently pursued his rights, held that Perkins' actual-innocence claim allowed him to present his ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim as if it had been filed on time. In so ruling, the appeals court "apparently considered Perkins' delay irrelevant to appraisal of his actual innocence claim," Ginsburg said.
Tuesday's ruling from the high court threw out the appeals court decision and sent the case back for a new decision in line with the majority opinion.