Justices Refuse to Free Man Jailed for Calculator Theft

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court refused Monday to free a Texas man who has served more than six years in prison for stealing a calculator from a Wal-Mart, even though state prosecutors admitted his crime called for a maximum of two years behind bars.

In a 6-3 decision, the justices said simple claims of injustice or “actual innocence” were usually not the basis for appeals in federal courts. To win in a federal court, defendants must show a “constitutional error” in the handling of their cases, they said.

But the three dissenters criticized their colleagues for ignoring “simple justice” in favor of procedural technicalities.


The high court reversed the orders that had freed Michael Haley, and it sent his case back to Texas for other judges to consider whether his mistaken prison sentence was his lawyer’s fault.

In the meantime, state prosecutors have promised they will allow Haley to remain free.

Monday’s ruling showed the court’s determination to maintain a limited role for federal judges in reviewing state criminal cases.

Since shortly after the Civil War, federal judges have been empowered to free state prison inmates who have been held “in violation of the Constitutions or laws ... of the United States.” However, this does not necessarily mean a federal judge may free a state inmate who is innocent of the crime or who was imprisoned for too long, the high court said.

In some instances, when a state inmate faces execution, the justices have carved out a limited exception and allowed federal courts to reopen a case when there is new evidence that calls into doubt the inmate’s guilt.

The Texas vs. Haley case posed the question of whether federal judges may reopen the cases of ordinary state inmates whose guilt or sentence is in doubt.

Without deciding the matter directly, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the high court would continue to adhere to a “rule of restraint” that limited federal judges from reopening state cases.


In 1997, Haley walked out of a Wal-Mart in Tyler, Texas, with a calculator tucked into his pants. He was arrested and charged with theft, a misdemeanor.

Because he had a criminal record, authorities charged him under a state “habitual offender” law, and Haley was sentenced to 16 years in prison. Several years later, a new lawyer discovered that Haley’s prior offenses didn’t meet the standards of the habitual-offender law, and he challenged the long prison term.

Texas prosecutors agreed that a mistake had been made, but said Haley had failed to raise the issue in time. Texas courts rejected his appeal.

However, when Haley filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal courts, a U.S. magistrate, a U.S. district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled that Haley must be freed because he had served six years in prison for a crime that carried a two-year maximum sentence.

“This is a classic example of a fundamental miscarriage of justice,” said Judge Carl E. Stewart of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Although state prosecutors had admitted the original sentence was an error, Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott asked the Supreme Court to reverse the rulings that had freed Haley.


“This is a case about federalism,” he said, quoting a 1991 opinion by O’Connor. “It concerns the respect that federal courts owe the states and the states’ procedural rules when reviewing the claims of state prisoners.”

In Monday’s opinion, O’Connor said Haley’s new lawyers should file a new appeal in federal court that alleged “ineffective assistance of counsel,” a constitutional error that would allow a federal judge to free Haley.

Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony M. Kennedy and David H. Souter dissented.

“This should be a simple case,” Stevens said. Because of a courthouse mistake, Haley has “been denied due process of law [and] is a victim of a miscarriage of justice.” That alone should be enough to free him, he concluded.

In a separate dissent, Kennedy said, “The law must serve the cause of justice....[It] can inspire little confidence if officials sworn to fight injustice chose to ignore it.”

The lawyer who represented Haley in the Supreme Court said he was disappointed in the outcome.

“I think the court missed a great opportunity to do the right thing,” said Eric M. Albritton, a lawyer based in Longview, Texas.


Despite the setback, Albritton said he was confident that Haley would prevail in the next round of litigation.

R. Ted Cruz, the Texas state solicitor, said he appealed to attack the ruling that gave inmates a new opportunity to challenge their past convictions.

“Our concern was that the court of appeals created a potentially broad exception to the procedural rules. It might have opened the door to many other criminal defendants bringing claims they had never raised at trial,” Cruz said.