Thursday, April 18, 2013

Habeas award overturned in burglary conviction

In habeas corpus cases, there really are two U.S. Constitutions. If a state court conviction violates the Constitution in some way, the defendant can get relief in federal court in a habeas petition. But a mere Constitutional violation will not always get the defendant relief. The state court's interpretation of the U.S. Constitution has to be contrary to  -- or an unreasonable application of  -- settled constitutional law, as defined by the Supreme Court, and not the federal courts in that jurisdiction. So the state court can interpret the Constitution differently than the federal courts might, but that incorrect interpretation may not spring the defendant to freedom.

The case is Evans v. Fisher, decided on April 3. The defendant was convicted of burglary. Here is how the district court summarized the issue:

The focus of the petition is the admission at petitioner's trial of an unsworn, highly detailed seven-page hearsay narrative, penned by the state's key trial witness, containing the most damaging evidence and nearly the entirety of the state's case. Admitted for its substance without a limiting instruction, the document was touted by the prosecutor during summation and furnished to the jurors, upon their request, at the outset of deliberations. Petitioner claims that the document's effect, as well as the state's objective in offering it, was essentially to supplant the witness's poor performance on the stand, and to nullify his primary defense, which consisted of a compelling impeachment of that testimony. He argues that he was denied due process because his conviction rests principally on this hearsay rather than the trial testimony.

The trial court granted Evans's habeas corpus petition, concluding that admission of this hearsay document violated his right to a fair trial under the due process clause. The Court of Appeals (Lynch, Lohier and Droney) disagrees. It may seem like Evans got an unfair trial, but the state appellate court affirmed his conviction. No Supreme Court case squarely holds that Evans' conviction violated the Constitution. Some cases are close, but not close enough. It wasn't always this way. The habeas corpus statute was amended in 1996, when Congress wanted to limit prisoner appeals challenging their convictions. Hence the difficult standard applied in this case. State courts are given some leeway in interpreting the U.S. Constitution, even if the federal courts disagree.  

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