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LAW 8000 - Actual Innocence: Primary Sources

This guide was originally prepared for law students in a law school class on wrongful convictions. This guide is designed to provide a broad overview of information relating to wrongful convictions.

Westlaw, Lexis Advance, and Bloomberg are all excellent sources for identifying and locating the relevant primary law.

Federal Primary Sources

Lexis Advance (Browse Topics)

  • Criminal Law & Procedure > Appeals
  • Criminal Law & Procedure > Habeas Corpus
  • Criminal Law & Procedure > Post-Conviction Proceedings

Westlaw (West Key Number System)

  • Topic: Criminal Law, Key Numbers 905-965 (110k905-k965): Motions for New Trial
  • Topic: Criminal Law, Key Numbers 1400-1689 (110k1400-k1689): Post-Conviction Relief
  • Topic: Criminal Law, Key Numbers 1870-1979 (110k1870-k1979): Adequacy of Representation
  • Topic: Habeas Corpus, Key Numbers 311-440 (197k311-k440): Federal Court Review of Petitions by State Prisoners
  • Topic: Habeas Corpus, Key Number 462 (197k462): Criminal Liability; Innocence
  • Topic: Habeas Corpus, Key Number 486 (197k486): Adequacy and Effectiveness of Counsel
  • Topic: Habeas Corpus, Key Numbers 489-494 (197k489-k494): Evidence
  • Topic: Habeas Corpus, Key Number 715 (197k715): Criminal Proceedings, Weight and Sufficiency

Constitution of the United States (link to annotated version on Westlaw). Also available on Lexis Advance.

Relevant provisions:

Federal criminal law is primarily contained in Title 18 of the United States Code (USC). Title 28 covers judicial procedure and contains information regarding the process of federal habeas appeals. Lexis Advance and Westlaw both provide access to the Code.

Relevant provisions of the United States Code:

Anytime you are filing a motion or a brief, make sure to check the rules of the specific court you are filing with. Small details can matter. Each court provides its own rules regarding briefs, procedures, and filing. Sometimes forms are included with the rules, so make sure to look.

Federal cases can be found in Lexis Advance or Westlaw.

The following list of federal cases, while not exhaustive, provides a good starting point for understanding some of the standards involved in appealing a conviction:

Dockets on Bloomberg Law:

A docket lists in chronological order all of the documents relating to a trial or an appeal. The documents included in a docket serve as the working papers of litigation. This is in contrast to final opinion issued by the court resolving the dispute between/among the parties to the litigation. A docket or docket sheet is nothing more than a numbered list (or index) of the underlying documents related to a case. 

You might want to research the underlying court documents to a case in the docket sheet for a few reasons, one of which is the ability to find sample documents upon which to model your own, such as a brief.

Dockets sheets are generally available at both the trial and appellate levels, for both state and federal courts. However, be aware that, as with most things electronic, online access to court filings will only go so far back in time. For trial-level dockets, you are able to find references to the underlying complaint, answer(s), motions, orders, and final judgments (to name just a few). For appellate-level dockets, you are able to find references to briefs (appellee, appellant, and amicus) and other documents relating to appellate case management.

However, it is important to note that federal electronic filing of documents may have preceded state electronic court filing for some states by more than a decade, so state docket information may be harder to get. Compounding this is that, at the state level, some counties are richer than others. As a result, some states will have courts with electronic court filings, while other state courts will not.