CoCA defines new legal-basis gateway for habeas relief

India Fender, Volume 50 Staff Member


The issue in this case was whether there is an exception to the subsequent habeas application bar via either the innocence-gateway exception or the new-legal-basis exception. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that neither exception applied because the alleged constitutional violation did not occur at or before the finding of guilt as required for the innocence-gateway exception, and the legal basis for the applicant’s claim were not new.

In St. Aubin v. State, St. Aubin was charged and convicted of one count of murder and four counts of attempted capital murder after shooting five people at the 1998 Mardi Gras celebration in Galveston. Nava was the victim alleged in the murder count as well as the second victim alleged in each of the attempted capital murder counts. St. Aubin filed multiple habeas applications, all of which were denied in in November 2001 and May 2002. The applications at issue in this case were filed in 2015. The 2015 applications claim that the court violated the Double Jeopardy Clause when the State obtained multiple convictions against him in a single trial.

Under Article 11.07 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, once a court has issued a final disposition of an initial application that challenges a conviction, the court may not consider the merits of subsequent habeas applications unless the application satisfies one of the exceptions. The innocence-gateway exception requires that “but for a violation of the United States Constitution no rational juror could have found the applicant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” which means the alleged violation must occur at or before a finding of guilt. This Court previously held in Ex parte Milner that the applicant satisfied the innocence-gateway exception because it was a successive-prosecutions claim, not a multiple-punishments claim. The Court explained that the successive-prosecutions double-jeopardy reasoning for the innocence-gateway exception found in Milner is not applicable to a multiple-punishments double-jeopardy claim. This is so because a multiple-punishments violation occurs after sentencing, so the necessary precondition of the violation occurring “at or before a finding of guilt” for the innocence-gateway exception is typically not met.

The new-legal-basis exception requires that the current claim has not and could not have been presented in the original application because the legal basis for the claim was unavailable and “could not have been reasonably formulated from” a final decision from a higher court by the date of the previous application. The Court held that because the double-jeopardy claim St. Aubin made were reasonably formulated in Milner and Saenz v. State, which existed before he filed his earlier applications, he failed to meet the new-legal-basis exception.

The concurrence focuses mainly on the fact that St. Aubin never raised the double-jeopardy issue on appeal, thereby forfeiting a double-jeopardy claim, and urges the Court to declare the claims as non-cognizable regardless of the standards imposed by Article 11.07. The concurrence also suggests that the Court take this decision as an opportunity to develop a cohesive theory of cognizability of habeas corpus claims.

The dissent took issue with the fact that the Court ignores the State and trial court suggestion that the judgment be reformed to a single conviction for murder with a life sentence because denying relief would serve no legitimate state interests. Instead, the Court treats the double-jeopardy claim as punishment error instead of properly treating it as a constitutional error.

St. Aubin v. State, Nos. WR-49,980-12 (Tex. Crim. Sept. 20, 2017).