UNITED STATES v. COWLEY, NO. 15-6067

Decided: February 29, 2016

The Fourth Circuit held that the appeal from defendant, Shane Cowley was properly before the court because a certificate of appealability (“COA”) is not required to appeal the denial of an Innocence Protection Act (“IPA”) motion brought pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§ 3600-3600A. However, the Fourth Circuit ultimately affirmed the district court’s ruling that Cowley’s motion was untimely under the IPA.

In August 2000, a jury convicted Cowley on four different counts in conjunction with the attempted robbery and murder of Jeff Stone. The district court sentenced Cowley to forty-five years’ imprisonment. Cowley directly appealed his conviction and sentence. After the district court was affirmed, he appealed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. That appeal was denied. In 2006, the IPA became law and allowed federal prisoners to move for court-ordered DNA testing under certain specified conditions. Cowley’s last appeal proceeding concluded in 2006, yet, he did not file a IPA motion until June 2014. In his motion, Cowley requested DNA testing for several items found at the crime scene, including spent casings from a 9mm and a .40 caliber gun. Cowley also attached affidavits from eight people that supported his alibi and pointed to four other people who could have committed the crimes. The district court denied Cowley’s motion and held that it was untimely. The district court also denied a COA.

The Fourth Circuit held that the appeal was properly before the court despite the district court’s denial of a COA and the court’s decision not to issue a COA. The court looked to the plain meaning of the IPA and also to other circuits interpretation of the IPA to determine whether an COA is required for a IPA motion. Ultimately, the court held that an appeal from the denial of an IPA motion is not subject to a COA requirement.

The Fourth Circuit then affirmed the district court’s denial of the IPA motion for it’s untimeliness. The IPA has ten requirements that must be met before the motion can be granted. One of the requirements mandates that the IPA motion be made within sixty months of enactment of the IPA or within thirty-six months of conviction, whichever is later. If it is not filed within that time, it is presumed untimely. The presumption can only be rebutted if one of the four exceptions apply. Cowley argued that the “good cause” exception and the “manifest injustice” exception applied in his case. The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s rejection of these arguments and found the court did not abuse its discretion. The Fourth Circuit found the district court was correct in concluding that the “good cause” exception did not apply because incarceration alone is not enough to show good cause for untimely filing. The court also upheld the district court’s ruling that the “manifest injustice” exception did not apply because Cowley’s explanation that he was incarcerated and unable to hire an investigator was not adequate.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Full Opinion

Cate E. Cardinale

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