The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of CounselBy Brandon Sample and Alissa HullPrison Legal News Publishing, 2016275 pages, $49.95Buy from Prison Legal News Reviewed By Christopher
Image courtesy witnessla.com By Prison Legal News The California Court of Appeal has held that documents in the possession of a prisoner who is providing
By Mark Wilson The Illinois Supreme Court held in September 2013 that a $50 State’s Attorney fee authorized in habeas corpus cases does not apply
By David Reutter / Prison Legal News
To correct a “grave miscarriage of justice,” Pennsylvania U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody granted a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner and vacated his conviction and death sentence for a murder that “in all probability he did not commit.” The court found violations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) due to the state’s withholding of evidence.
James A. Dennis was convicted in Philadelphia for the October 22, 1991 killing of high school student Chedell Williams. Williams, 17, and a friend, Zahra Howard, were approached by two men who demanded they give up their earrings. The girls fled; Howard hid behind a fruit stand while Williams ran into the street.
The men chased Williams. One of them held a gun to her neck and shot her; they then jumped into a car and sped away. Williams was pronounced dead shortly after her arrival at a hospital.
Dennis’ conviction was “based on scant evidence at best,” the district court wrote in an August 21, 2013 ruling. “It was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications from three witnesses, the testimony of another man who said he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder, and a description of clothing seized from the house of Dennis’ father that the police subsequently lost before police photographed or catalogued it.”
The police never recovered a weapon, never found the car used by the assailants and never found two accomplices described by witnesses. Judge Brody said confidence in Dennis’ conviction was significantly diminished by flaws with the investigation and prosecution of the case, and noted “There was virtually no physical evidence presented at trial.”
The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the denial of a death row prisoner’s habeas corpus petition that contended he was denied a fair trial by an impartial judge and jury because the jurors gave inappropriate gag gifts to the judge and one of the bailiffs.
The habeas proceeding involved Georgia death row prisoner Marcus A. Wellons, who was convicted of the murder and rape of a fourteen-year-old girl in 1989. During his trial, Wellons did not dispute that he had killed and raped the victim; rather, he claimed he was either not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. After finding him guilty, the jury recommended a sentence of death for the murder and life for the rape.
Defense counsel learned during post-trial interviews that some jurors gave gag gifts to the judge and a bailiff either near the end of or immediately following the penalty phase of the trial. The judge received chocolate candy in the shape of a penis while the bailiff received chocolate in the shape of female breasts. Wellons’ counsel also learned that when the sequestered jurors dined at a local restaurant, the judge had spoken to them.
Motions for a new trial and for recusal of the judge were denied, Wellons’ convictions were affirmed on appeal and the Supreme Court denied review. Likewise, a state habeas petition was denied. After the federal district court denied Wellons’ habeas petition, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. This time, however, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and the matter was subsequently remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the “disturbing facts of this case.” The district court again denied relief and Wellons again appealed.
In March 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a district court’s dismissal of a pro se habeas petitioner’s claim that his 9-year detention while waiting for the State of California to initiate civil commitment proceedings was unconstitutional.
Just before convicted rapist Bobby Joe Knight’s scheduled release from prison in 2004 after serving a 20-year sentence, the state filed a civil petition against him under California’s Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA), Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 6600, et seq. The Los Angeles County Superior Court ordered that Knight be held in a secure facility pending trial.
Knight remained in custody, as no effort was made to bring the state’s petition against him to trial. Incredibly, between 2004 and 2009, Knight’s counsel requested (or stipulated to) continuances of the case. Not content with the quality of his representation – being deprived of one’s liberty indefinitely, without due process of law, can be frustrating – Knight repeatedly requested that he be appointed new counsel.
Exasperated, he filed a habeas corpus petition in state court in April 2009, claiming that his lengthy detention was unconstitutional. The petition was denied, and Knight’s counsel and the government agreed to still more continuances.
By Kent Russell
This column provides “habeas hints” to prisoners who are considering or handling habeas corpus petitions as their own attorneys (“in pro per”). The focus of the column is on “AEDPA” (Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act), the federal habeas corpus law which now governs habeas corpus practice in courts throughout the United States.
Missouri v. Frye, 132 S.Ct. 1399 (2012)
Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376 (2012)
In Missouri v. Frye (Frye) and Lafler v. Cooper (Cooper), the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) held that, when a plea offer by the State is rejected due to ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC), the defendant may be entitled to a second chance at accepting the offer – even if he subsequently pleaded guilty to less favorable terms, or went to trial, was found guilty and received a longer sentence than that provided for in the original plea offer.
In Frye, the defendant was charged with a felony for a fourth offense of driving with a revoked license. The prosecutor sent Frye’s lawyer a letter offering to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor if Frye pleaded guilty within a specified time period and agreed to a 90-day sentence. However, the lawyer never informed Frye of the offer before the deadline for acceptance, and the offer expired. Then Frye, ignorant that the plea offer had lapsed, pleaded guilty without conditions and was sentenced to 3 years in prison – more than 10 times the sentence he would have received had he accepted the plea offer.
In Cooper, the defendant was charged with assault with intent to murder after he shot a woman in the buttocks. Prosecutors offered a plea deal with a recommended term of four to seven years. However, Cooper’s lawyer advised him to reject the offer because the lawyer insisted that state law did not permit an attempted murder conviction for wounds inflicted below the waist. The lawyer’s advice was 100% wrong, but Cooper relied on it and rejected the plea offer. Cooper then went to trial, was convicted and received a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 to 30 years – more than 4 times greater than the sentence he would have received had he taken the plea bargain.