COA Recognizes Expansion of Habeas Corpus Relief for Incarcerated People

May 19, 2021

For incarcerated people, with little control over their environment, the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly deadly, and NCAJ members have been deeply involved in helping North Carolina inmates gain release from confinement during this time. In one case, State v. Daw,  COA20-680, what started as a habeas petition filed in June 2020 by NCAJ member Jim Melo on behalf of Daw, an inmate in Harnett County Correctional Institute, has resulted in a recent decision by the Court of Appeals that expands the reach of habeas corpus relief for all North Carolina prisoners.

NCAJ submitted an amicus brief to the Court of Appeals in support of Daw, who sought early release based on his high risk of fatality from coronavirus due to pre-existing respiratory ailments. NCAJ argued that the trial court’s summary denial of Daw’s petition seeking issuance of a writ of habeas corpus was in error, because his continued imprisonment during the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus constituted cruel and unusual punishment given his medical conditions. Though the Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the lower court’s summary denial, its decision makes clear that North Carolina prisoners can seek habeas relief even if their initial imprisonment was lawful.

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals emphatically put to rest the argument that habeas petitions must be denied if an inmate is imprisoned due to a valid order or judgment. Rather, the court agreed with NCAJ as amicus, and with NCAJ members Melo and Rob Heroy, who acted as Daw’s appellate attorneys, and expressly held that N.C.G.S. § 17-33, which allows for habeas relief if any “act, omission or event” after imprisonment entitles the habeas petitioner to discharge, must be considered by judges ruling on habeas petitions. If a petitioner can present evidence with his petition that makes a “threshold showing that there was a material issue of fact as to whether an ‘act, omission, or event’ had occurred entitling him to discharge,” then a habeas hearing must be held. State v. Daw at *17. This is the first time that a North Carolina appellate court has expressly held that trial courts must look beyond the validity of the initial imprisonment to determine whether habeas relief is warranted.

To reach this result, the Court of Appeals examined the history of the writ of habeas corpus in North Carolina and its own precedent. The court noted that, along with changes in the state constitution and statutes governing habeas, “the scope of habeas corpus jurisdiction has also evolved,” Daw at *6, and is “much broader” than it was at common law. The Court “reiterate[d] . . . that an incarcerated person may petition for issuance of a writ of habeas corpus under § 17-33(2) based on the occurrence of an ‘act, omission, or event’ entitling the party to discharge, even though the writ would not have issued in such cases at common law.” Daw at *10.

In Daw’s case, in which he alleged that his diagnoses exacerbated his likelihood of dying of coronavirus if he remained in prison, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court was justified in summarily denying his petition, as his “application did not show how Petitioner’s medical conditions put him at an elevated risk for serious illness or other complications from COVID-19.” Daw at *17. The Court at least implies that evidence admissible pursuant to evidentiary Rule 702, governing expert medical evidence, would have been required to survive summary dismissal as a matter of law. Id. 

Though the evidentiary threshold for getting a habeas hearing was set quite high by this recent Court of Appeals opinion, it is not insurmountable. Ultimately, the opinion in State v. Daw is a win for North Carolina’s inmates, including those still at higher risk of grave consequences due to COVID-19, and advances the cause of justice for incarcerated people.