Illinois $50 State’s Attorney Fee Applies Only to Habeas Proceedings

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 to non-habeas collateral proceedings. After an Illinois trial court dismissed a post-conviction petition filed by state prisoner Omar Johnson, he submitted a petition for relief from judgment under section 2-1401

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Brady Violations Result in Habeas Relief for Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoner

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.”

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Jury’s Tasteless Gag Gifts to Judge and Bailiff Fail to Demonstrate Unfair Trial

By Prison Legal News

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.

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Ninth Circuit: 9-Year Detention Pending Civil Commitment Proceeding Warrants Habeas Relief

By Prison Legal News

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.

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Habeas Hints: Staring Down the Two-Headed Monster: Richter-Pinholster

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 the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the federal habeas corpus law which now governs habeas corpus practice in courts throughout the United States.

Part Two of Two

Harrington v. Richter,
131 S.Ct. 770 (2011)

Cullen v. Pinholster,
131 S.Ct. 1388 (2011

In Richter, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) made ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claims – heretofore the staple of habeas corpus litigation – even harder to win on federal habeas corpus than they were before; and in Pinholster the Court all but eliminated federal evidentiary hearings as an aid to satisfying AEDPA’s requirement that a state court’s denial of habeas relief be shown to be “unreasonable.” The decisions in Richter and Pinholster represent a two-headed monster that habeas petitioners will frequently face and have to stare down.

In this two-part column, I discuss these two important cases and suggest some Habeas Hints for how to make the best of them. In Part One we focused on Richter. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.12]. Here, in Part Two, we will zero in on Pinholster.

Pinholster concerned a defendant charged with capital murder in California after he solicited friends to rob local drug dealers and, when the dealers tried to prevent the robbers’ escape, beat and stabbed them to death. After his arrest, Pinholster threatened to kill a cooperating witness unless he kept quiet. At the guilt phase of the trial Pinholster stupidly testified in his own defense – boasting that he had committed hundreds of robberies while insisting that he always used a gun, even though he had a history of having kidnapped a person while using a knife. The jury found him guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, triggering the penalty phase of the trial.

Shortly before the penalty phase started, the defense moved to exclude any aggravating evidence on the ground that the prosecution had not provided notice to use such evidence as required under California law. The motion was denied on the basis that Pinholster had represented himself at a previous stage of the case, during which the required notice had been given. Defense counsel then stated that, having banked on the court’s grant of the motion to exclude, he was not prepared to offer any mitigating evidence. The court inquired whether a continuance might be helpful but counsel declined, saying that because he couldn’t think of any mitigation witness other than Pinholster’s mother, having more time wouldn’t matter.

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Habeas Hints: 2012 Supreme Court Habeas Highlights: Plea Bargaining Cases

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.

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