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Wilson v. Flaherty, No. 11-6919

Decided: August 17, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s judgment that the district court does not have jurisdiction over a habeas corpus petition where the petitioner has not been in prison for five years.

Eric Wilson is one of the “Norfolk Four,” a group of Navy sailors who were convicted of the rape and/or murder of Michelle Bosko, the wife of another Navy sailor.  The investigation and prosecution of the four has subsequently been called into question with introduction of new evidence.  As a result of his rape conviction, Wilson is required to and did register with the state sex offender registry.  Wilson maintains that the consequences of registering as a sex offender, including limiting work advancement and not being able to adopt his stepson, amount to “custody” for purposes of the habeas corpus statute.  Wilson filed this habeas petition five years after the completion of his sentence, maintaining his innocence, the Commonwealth of Virginia suppressed exculpatory evidence, and he was the victim of a corrupt investigative process.  The district court dismissed the petition because Wilson was not “in custody” at the time of filing his petition, as is required by the relevant statute.  The Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that to rule otherwise would expand habeas relief far beyond its purview, and render the “in custody” requirement meaningless.

Judge Davis wrote separately in concurrence to note that he believes Wilson is entitled to a federal forum to entertain his claims, but lack of jurisdiction under the habeas corpus statute does not foreclose relief under § 1983.

Judge Wynn wrote separately in a lengthy dissent concluding that Wilson is almost certainly innocent.  The lack of a federal forum for his claims, according to Judge Wynn, is an unjust result that does not comport with the Constitution, prior jurisprudence, and habeas statutes.

Full Opinion

-Jennifer Routh