Thursday, November 13, 2008

New trial granted where defendant was prevented from cross-examining racist complaining witness

Habeas corpus petitions are hard to win these days, ever since Congress revised the procedures in 1996 to require that the petitions be denied unless the state criminal court unreasonably applied settled constitutional law in denying the defendant a fair trial. That strict requirement did not prevent the Court of Appeals from affirming a habeas award where the criminal court did not allow a defendant to cross-examine the complaining witness about his alleged racist beliefs.

The case is Brinson v. Walker, decided on November 13. The black defendant was charged with robbing a white victim on the street. The defendant denied committing any crime and wanted to prove that the complaining witness hated blacks and used racial epithets. The defendant would prove this through testimony from the complaining witness's co-workers and associates.

The trial judge said no, that this evidence was not relevant because the racial statements were made after the robbery. The Court of Appeals said yes, that the trial judge's ruling violated the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment, which the courts have interpreted to mean that you can challenge the witness's bias. According to the Second Circuit, "It is hard to conceive of a more 'prototypical form of bias' than racial bias." Since the criminal court prevented the defendant from proving that the complaining witness is a racist, that evidentiary ruling violated the Constitution.

The question, then, is whether that evidentiary ruling represented an unreasonable application of settled Supreme Court case law. The Court of Appeals said that it was. The extreme bias that the complaining witness allegedly harbored toward blacks makes it clear that the defendant had the right to bring this all before a jury to test the witness's credibility, and that this evidence could have made a difference at trial in exonerating the defendant. The Second Circuit reasons, "Brinson had a constitutional right under the Confrontation Clause to cross-examine Gavin on such extreme racial bias so that the jury could make its judgment whether Gavin’s testimony was affected by bias, and in the circumstances it was an 'unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court' to bar his exercise of that right on the ground that a racial bias is general rather than personally directed."

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