Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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More than 30 years ago, Madison shot a police officer in the head at close range. An Alabama jury found Madison guilty of capital murder. In 2016, he sought suspension of his death sentence, arguing that, due to recent strokes, he has become incompetent. The court heard testimony from psychologists who had examined Madison. The court’s appointed psychologist reported that, although Madison may have “suffered a significant decline post-stroke, . . . [he] understands the exact posture of his case,” and appears to have a “rational understanding ” of his death sentence. A psychologist hired by Madison’s counsel reported that Madison “able to understand the nature of the pending proceeding and … what he was tried for” and that . . . [Alabama is] seeking retribution” for that crime, but Madison cannot recall “the sequence of events from the offense to his arrest to the trial” and believes that he “never went around killing.” The trial court denied Madison’s petition. Madison sought federal habeas relief. The Eleventh Circuit reversed the denial of that petition. The Supreme Court reversed, reinstating the denial, citing its “Panetti” and “Ford” holdings. Neither decision “clearly established” that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from a failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied to him. The state court did not unreasonably apply those decisions in holding that Madison is competent to be executed because he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed. Nor was the state court’s decision founded on an unreasonable assessment of the evidence. View "Dunn v. Madison" on Justia Law

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Cuero, on parole, driving under the influence of methamphetamine and without a license, while carrying a gun, drove his car into and seriously injured a pedestrian. A California court permitted the state to amend a criminal complaint to which the Cuero had pleaded guilty, acknowledging that permitting the amendment would lead to a higher sentence. The amendment added another “strike” to Cuero’s criminal history. The court reasoned that the case was distinguishable from “a situation where the [State] might, after a guilty plea, seek to amend” by adding “new charges” or facts that fundamentally alter the substance of the complaint.Cuero was allowed to withdraw his guilty plea, then pleaded guilty to the amended complaint and was sentenced to a term with a minimum of 25 years. The Ninth Circuit held that the California court had made a mistake of federal law, reasoning that Cuero was entitled to specific performance of the 14-year, 4-month sentence that he would have received had the complaint not been amended. The Supreme Court reversed, citing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 28 U.S.C. 2254(d)(1), stating that none of its prior decisions clearly require the state court to impose the lower sentence that the parties originally expected. Even if the state violated the Constitution when it moved to amend the complaint there is no Supreme Court precedent that “clearly established” specific performance as a remedy. Circuit precedent does not constitute “clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” View "Kernan v. Cuero" on Justia Law

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In petitioner’s state capital murder trial, the court overruled counsel’s objection to a proposed jury and submitted the instruction to the jury, which convicted petitioner. Appellate counsel did instruction not challenge the jury instruction; petitioner’s conviction was affirmed. Petitioner’s state habeas counsel did not raise the instructional issue or challenge appellate counsel’s failure to raise it. The state habeas court denied relief. Petitioner then sought federal habeas relief. The Fifth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed denial of relief. The ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel does not provide cause to excuse the procedural default of ineffective-assistance-of-appellate-counsel claims. Attorney error during state postconviction proceedings, for which the Constitution does not guarantee the right to counsel, cannot supply cause to excuse a procedural default that occurs in those proceedings except where state law requires a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel to be raised in an “initial-review collateral proceeding,” rather than on direct appeal or where the state’s “procedural framework, by reason of its design and operation, makes it unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity to raise” the claim on direct appeal. Extending the exception is not required to ensure that meritorious claims of trial error receive review by at least one state or federal court. A claim of trial error, preserved by trial counsel but not raised by counsel on appeal, will have been addressed by the trial court. View "Davila v. Davis" on Justia Law

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Lee moved to the U.S. from South Korea with his parents when he was 13. For 35 years he never returned to South Korea, nor did he become a U.S. citizen. He is a lawful permanent resident. In 2008, Lee admitted possessing ecstasy with intent to distribute. His attorney repeatedly assured him that he would not be deported as a result of pleading guilty. Lee accepted a plea and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. His conviction was an “aggravated felony,” 8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(43)(B), so he was subject to mandatory deportation. When Lee learned of this consequence, he moved to vacate his conviction, arguing that his attorney had provided constitutionally ineffective assistance. Lee and his plea-stage counsel testified that “deportation was the determinative issue” in Lee's decision to accept a plea. Lee’s counsel acknowledged that although Lee’s defense was weak, if he had known Lee would be deported upon pleading guilty, he would have advised him to go to trial. The Sixth Circuit affirmed denial of relief. The Supreme Court reversed. Lee established that he was prejudiced by erroneous advice, demonstrating a “reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” The Court stated that the inquiry demands a “case-by-case examination.” A defendant’s decisionmaking may not turn solely on the likelihood of conviction after trial. When the inquiry is focused on what an individual defendant would have done, the possibility of even a highly improbable result may be pertinent to the extent it would have affected the defendant’s decisionmaking. The Court reasoned that it could not say that it would be irrational for someone in Lee’s position to risk additional prison time in exchange for holding on to some chance of avoiding deportation. View "Lee v. United States" on Justia Law

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When petitioner was tried, the Massachusetts courtroom could not accommodate all potential jurors. During jury selection, a court officer excluded any member of the public who was not a potential juror, including petitioner’s mother and her minister. Defense counsel neither objected at trial nor raised the issue on direct review. Petitioner was convicted of murder. Five years later, he sought a new trial, arguing that his attorney had provided ineffective assistance by failing to object to the closure. The Supreme Court affirmed the state courts in rejecting the argument. In the context of a public trial violation during jury selection, where the error is neither preserved nor raised on direct review but is raised later via an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant must demonstrate prejudice to secure a new trial. A public trial violation is a structural error, which “affect[s] the framework within which the trial proceeds,” but does not always lead to fundamental unfairness. If an objection is made and the issue is raised on direct appeal, the defendant generally is entitled to automatic reversal. If the defendant does not preserve a structural error on direct review but raises it later in an ineffective-assistance claim, the defendant generally bears the burden to show “a reasonable probability that . . . the result of the proceeding would have been different” but for attorney error or that the violation was so serious as to render the trial fundamentally unfair. Petitioner has not shown a reasonable probability of a different outcome or that the trial was fundamentally unfair and is not entitled to a new trial. His trial was not conducted in secret or in a remote place; closure was limited to voir dire; venire members who did not become jurors observed the proceedings; and the record indicates no basis for concern. View "Weaver v. Massachusetts" on Justia Law

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Defendants were indicted for the kidnapping, robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. The prosecution argued that Fuller was attacked by a large group, producing the testimony of two men who confessed to participating in a group attack and cooperated in return for leniency. Other witnesses corroborated aspects of their testimony. The prosecution played a videotape of defendant Yarborough’s statement to detectives, describing how he was part of a large group that carried out the attack. None of the defendants rebutted the witnesses’ claims that Fuller was killed in a group attack. Long after their convictions became final, seven defendants discovered that the government had withheld evidence: the identity of a man seen running into the alley after the murder and stopping near the garage where Fuller’s body had already been found; statements of a passerby who claimed to hear groans coming from a closed garage; and evidence tending to impeach three witnesses. The Supreme Court affirmed the D.C. courts in rejecting their Brady claims, finding the withheld evidence not material. Evidence is material when there is a reasonable probability that, had the evidence been disclosed, the result of the proceeding would have been different, given the context of the entire record. An argument that, had defendants known about the withheld evidence, they could have raised an alternative theory, that a single perpetrator (or two) had attacked Fuller “is too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.” The undisclosed impeachment evidence was largely cumulative of impeachment evidence already in use at trial. View "Turner v. United States" on Justia Law

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In 1985, Alabama charged McWilliams with rape and murder, one month after the Supreme Court’s decision in Ake v. Oklahoma. Finding McWilliams indigent, the court ordered a psychiatric evaluation. The state convened a commission, which concluded that McWilliams was competent and had not been suffering from mental illness at the time of the offense. A jury convicted McWilliams and recommended a death sentence. Before sentencing, defense counsel successfully requested neurological and neuropsychological testing. McWilliams was examined by a neuropsychologist employed by the state, who concluded that McWilliams was likely exaggerating his symptoms, but apparently had genuine neuropsychological problems. Counsel then received updated records from the commission and Department of Corrections mental health records. At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel unsuccessfully requested a continuance to evaluate the new material and assistance by someone with expertise in psychological matters. The court sentenced McWilliams to death. The Alabama Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit's denial of habeas relief. The Alabama courts’ determination that McWilliams received all the assistance to which Ake entitled him was contrary to, or an unreasonable application of, clearly established federal law. Ake requires the state to provide an indigent defendant with “access to a competent psychiatrist who will conduct an appropriate examination and assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” Even if Alabama met the examination requirement, it did not meet any of the other three. The Eleventh Circuit should determine on remand whether the error had the “substantial and injurious effect or influence” required to warrant a grant of habeas relief. View "McWilliams v. Dunn" on Justia Law

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Hutton accused Mitchell and Simmons of stealing a sewing machine in which he had hidden $750. On September 16, 1985, Hutton drove the two around, pointing a gun. Hutton recovered the machine. Simmons survived two gunshot wounds to the head. Mitchell was found dead. An Ohio jury convicted Hutton of aggravated murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping, finding that Hutton engaged in “a course of conduct involving the . . . attempt to kill two or more persons,” and that Hutton murdered Mitchell while “committing, attempting to commit, or fleeing immediately after . . . kidnapping” as “aggravating circumstances.” The court instructed the jury that it could recommend a death sentence only if it unanimously found that the state “prove[d] beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstances, of which the Defendant was found guilty, outweigh[ed] the [mitigating factors].” The jury recommended death. The Ohio Supreme Court affirmed that sentence. Hutton sought habeas relief, 28 U.S.C. 2254, arguing that the court failed to tell jurors that they could consider only the aggravating factors they had found during the guilt phase. Hutton had not objected to the instruction or raised this argument on direct appeal. The Supreme Court held that the Sixth Circuit erred in reviewing Hutton’s claim under the miscarriage of justice exception to procedural default. Assuming that the alleged error could provide a basis for excusing default, the Sixth Circuit should have considered whether a properly instructed jury could have recommended death. Instead, it considered whether the alleged error might have affected the jury’s verdict. It was not shown by clear and convincing evidence that no properly instructed reasonable juror would have concluded that the aggravating circumstances in Hutton’s case outweigh the mitigating circumstances. Ohio courts weighed those factors and concluded that the death penalty was justified. View "Jenkins v. Hutton" on Justia Law

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North Carolina law made it a felony for a registered sex offender “to access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages.” N.C. Gen. Stat. 14–202.5(a), (e). The state has prosecuted over 1,000 people under that law. Petitioner was indicted after posting a statement on his personal Facebook profile about a positive traffic court experience. State courts upheld the law. The Supreme Court reversed. The statute impermissibly restricts lawful speech in violation of the First Amendment. Today, one of the most important places to exchange views is cyberspace, particularly social media. Even if the statute is content-neutral and subject to intermediate scrutiny, the provision is not “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” While social media will be exploited by criminals and sexual abuse of a child is a most serious crime, the assertion of a valid governmental interest “cannot, in every context, be insulated from all constitutional protections.” The statute “enacts a prohibition unprecedented in the scope of First Amendment speech it burdens…. With one broad stroke, North Carolina bars access to what for many are the principal sources for knowing current events, checking ads for employment, speaking and listening in the modern public square, and otherwise exploring the vast realms of human thought and knowledge.” The state did not establish that this sweeping law is necessary to keep convicted sex offenders away from vulnerable victims. View "Packingham v. North Carolina" on Justia Law

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In 1999, LeBlanc, then age 16, raped a 62- year-old woman. In 2003, a state trial court sentenced him to life in prison. Virginia had abolished traditional “parole” for felony offenders and enacted its “geriatric release” program, which allows older inmates to receive conditional release under some circumstances. In 2010, the Supreme Court held, in Graham v. Florida, that the Eighth Amendment prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life without parole and that states must give defendants “some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” LeBlanc sought to vacate his sentence in light of Graham. The state court denied the motion, citing the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision in Angel v. Commonwealth, that Virginia’s geriatric release program satisfies Graham’s requirement of parole for juvenile offenders: “The regulations for conditional release under this statute provide that if the prisoner meets the qualifications for consideration contained in the statute, the factors used in the normal parole consideration process apply to conditional release decisions under this statute.” LeBlanc filed a federal habeas petition, 28 U.S.C. 2254. The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit’s grant of relief. The Virginia trial court’s ruling, resting on the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling in Angel, was not objectively unreasonable in light of existing Supreme Court authority. View "Virginia v. LeBlanc" on Justia Law