It is rare for a case from the New York Appellate Division to be as significant as People v. Hamilton. The case, however, was the first New York appellate court decision to hold that a defendant might vacate his conviction if he could demonstrate that he was “actually innocent” of the crime of which he was charged. Although the precedential force of the decision is limited to the Second Department, trial courts throughout the state are required to follow Hamilton unless or until the appellate court in their own Department rules on the issue. Courts throughout the state are thus entertaining numerous “actual innocence” motions inspired by Hamilton.
While courts in some other states, including state appellate courts, have recognized actual innocence claims, whether such claims should be recognized, and if so under what circumstances, is a very live issue in the federal courts and numerous state courts throughout the country. Examination of Hamilton, therefore, provides a useful way to consider issues that are of surpassing importance in criminal law and that will likely reoccur in cases throughout the country. As Hamilton goes further than many other courts have in considering the implications of actual innocence claims, consideration of Hamilton may be of considerable value to courts that consider actual innocence claims. Hamilton is a trailblazer, and its trail will repay careful study.