Herrera v. Collins

PETITIONER: Leonel Torres Herrera
RESPONDENT: James A. Collins, Director, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division
LOCATION: Edinburg Police Department

DOCKET NO.: 91-7328
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 506 US 390 (1993)
ARGUED: Oct 07, 1992
DECIDED: Jan 25, 1993

Margaret P. Griffey - on behalf of the Respondent
Paul J. Larkin, Jr. - as amicus curiae supporting Respondent
Talbot D'Alemberte - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

On September 29, 1981, Officers Enrique Carrisalez and David Rucker were shot within several minutes of each other in a rural part of Texas along the Mexico border known as “the Valley.” Enrique Hernandez, who was riding along in Officer Carrisalez’s squad car, was an eyewitness to Carrisalez’s shooting. The shootings led to a massive hunt for the killer across the Valley. The police arrested Leonel Herrera on October 4, 1981 near Edinburg and took him to the police station. During a heated exchange, Herrera struck a police officer and was restrained. When defense counsel arrived several hours later, Herrera was badly beaten, unconscious, and partly paralyzed; he was subsequently transported to a hospital emergency room. Officer Carrisalez died soon thereafter.

The police discovered evidence at the scene of arrest implicating Herrera in both murders. The car pulled over by Carrisalez was registered in the name of Herrera’s live-in girlfriend, and Herrera had a set of keys to that car when he was arrested. The police found drops of Type A blood on jeans recovered from a laundry room and in Herrera’s wallet. They also found a letter in Herrera’s pocket with Herrera’s fingerprints; the letter contained apparent confessions to both murders. Hernandez could not specifically identify Herrera from an array of six photographs, but later identified him as the shooter when presented with a mug shot. Herrera was convicted of the murder of Officer Carrisalez, and pleaded guilty to the murder of Trooper Rucker.

Herrera filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, claiming actual innocence and alleging that various Valley police officials were involved in the drug trade and were working with the person actually responsible for the murders, Raul Herrera. The trial court denied relief. Herrera filed another petition, presenting the affidavit of Raul Herrera’s son that he witnessed the killings and that Herrera did not commit them. The district court dismissed most of Herrera’s claims, but granted a stay of execution as to his claim of innocence. The Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit, vacated the stay of execution, agreeing with Texas that innocence was irrelevant to Herrera’s petition.


Was an individual sentenced to death for murder, Leonel Herrera, entitled to federal habeas corpus relief under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments when his petition was based on a claim of actual innocence without an accompanying federal constitutional violation?

Media for Herrera v. Collins

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 07, 1992 in Herrera v. Collins

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in No. 91-7328, Leonel Torres Herrera v. James A. Collins.

Spectators are admonished not to talk.

The court remains in session.

You may proceed, Mr. D'Alemberte.

Talbot D'Alemberte:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

The case of Leonel Herrera brings to the Court the question of whether or not a person with a colorable claim of innocence is entitled to have a hearing before being executed by the state.


Talbot D'Alemberte:

Your Honor, we are not challenging the conviction below, we are basing this submission on--

Byron R. White:

--You mean innocence of the death penalty, so to speak.

Talbot D'Alemberte:

--Your Honor, it's our contention that he should not be executed while he has a colorable claim of innocence, but our submission is based on the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment.

William H. Rehnquist:

Is it innocence in the sense that he didn't commit the crime?

Talbot D'Alemberte:

It is, Your Honor.

William H. Rehnquist:

So it does go to the guilt and not just the sentence.

Talbot D'Alemberte:

It does, Your Honor, although in our submission the relief that we request does not seek complete justice at this stage.

We are just simply saying at this stage that Leonel Herrera may not be executed while he has a colorable claim of innocence.

And all we sought at this stage is that Judge Hinojosa at the trial level take evidence about our colorable claim of innocence, which he agreed to do, and that process before Judge Hinojosa was aborted by the decision of the Fifth Circuit.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

But at bottom you have a claim of innocence of the conviction, I mean that goes to the merits of the conviction, do you not?

Talbot D'Alemberte:

We do, Your Honor, and ultimately--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

So how does the Eighth Amendment bear on that?

Talbot D'Alemberte:

--Your Honor, the Eighth Amendment only gets us step one.

We respectfully submit that because of the grounds of our claim we in this submission only ask that the state not be allowed to execute Leonel Herrera.

We recognize that that does not reach a complete justice.

It's really not entirely symmetrical in our judgment.

We would like for it to be symmetrical.

We would like to see at some point a larger principle, but we do not urge that larger principle here.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Now the question presented, the first question presented, as I read it, says whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit a state to execute an individual who is innocent of the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced.

Talbot D'Alemberte:

That's correct, Your Honor.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Now, you don't really think that's the way the case comes to us, do you?

There's an allegation of innocence.

He comes to us as a guilty defendant.