Thursday, May 8, 2014

Decent alibi defense does not always get you habeas relief

If you are not familiar with habeas corpus law, it might surprise you to know that federal courts defer to state court interpretations of the Constitution. This means that if the federal judges (who interpret the Constitution every day) know in their heart of hearts that the defendant did not get a fair trial, they have to sustain the conviction if "fairminded jurists could disagree" about the state court's proper application of constitutional precedent.

The case is Matthews v. Raymond, a summary order decided on April 14. Matthews was convicted of burglary in the second degree. Matthews said he was not at the scene of the crime. He told his lawyer this. But for strategic reasons, his lawyer did not pursue the alibi defense. Here is how the Second Circuit summarizes the possible alibi:

Department of Corrections documents place Matthews in downtown Brooklyn, approximately 3.5 miles away from the crime scene, just 75 to 100 minutes before the burglary was committed. This gave him very little time to reach the crime scene, acquire the burglary tools later found in the apartment, pick up the bicycle he would later use to flee the scene, circumvent the locks on the outside of the building and on the door to the second‐floor apartment without leaving signs of forced entry, and locate and take possession of the victim’s jewelry box and two laptop computers in the victim’s apartment. Although these feats are not beyond the realm of physical possibility, an alibi defense based on this evidence, even without testimony from the defendant, might well have raised substantial doubts in the mind of the judge, as trier of the facts here, as to Matthews’ guilt.
Let's not kid ourselves. It looks like Matthews had a decent alibi argument. The Second Circuit seems to think so. But according to the Court (Straub, Sack and Lohier), counsel "declined to pursue the alibi because the evidence did not conclusively establish Matthews' innocence and because it could supply a possible motive for the burglary."

You can challenge your conviction in a habeas petition on the "ineffective assistance of counsel" theory. That theory could work here, but the state court that first entertained Matthews' challenge said that his lawyer's strategic choice was permissible. The Court of Appeals concludes, "Even if we were of the view that counsel erred and that this justification did not amount to a reasonable trial strategy in light of the alibi’s exculpatory value, we cannot conclude in the face of the contrary State court judgment that any and all fairminded jurists” would agree. We therefore conclude, as we must, that Matthews’ habeas petition was properly denied."

No comments: