The habeas corpus law that Congress enacted in the mid-1990s makes it harder to challenge the constitutionality of a state court criminal conviction. Even if a federal court finds in hindsight that a conviction violated constitutional standards, the inmate will not win the habeas petition unless the state court violated clearly-established constitutional law. In this case, the inmate overcomes that hurdle.
The case is Alvarez v. Ercole, decided on August 18. Alvarez was convicted of manslaughter resulting from a drive-by shooting in The Bronx in which a drug-dealer died. The criminal case was not open-shut: eyewitness accounts were sketchy. But the police had other leads on who might have pulled the trigger. The police did not develop those leads, and Alvarez's lawyer tried to prove at the criminal trial that the police investigation was shoddy and that someone else was guilty of the crime. The criminal court judge prevented counsel from exploring this defense at trial, ruling that evidence of other leads into the killing was hearsay.
The Court of Appeals (Calabresi, Livingston and Jacobs) disagrees and finds that the habeas petition should have been granted. Alvarez had a clearly-established right to effectively cross-examine the detective whose notes showed that he possessed the names of other possible suspects. As the Second Circuit puts it, the trial court's restriction on cross-examining the detective prevented Alvarez from pursing his best defense: "that the police investigation into the murder was flawed and had improperly disregarded a promising alternate suspect." This was especially damaging to Alvarez's case because the prosecutor told the jury in summation that the police did a good job and that defendant was merely speculating about the police investigation.
Habeas petitions are hard to win, in part, because of the legal standard that Congress adopted 20 years ago when it amended the habeas laws after Republicans took over Congress. I recall that the argument in support of deferring to state-court judgments was that federal courts were infringing on state's rights in second-guessing criminal convictions. The solution was to require federal courts to defer to state court judgments. Even if the conviction is found to be unconstitutional, the conviction stands unless the state court unreasonably applied Supreme Court authority. As I see it, this creates a two-tiered constitutional system. State courts are allowed to get it wrong (even on constitutional matters) so long as they don't totally blow it. As the Second Circuit notes, “[A]n unreasonable application of [Supreme Court law] must be objectively unreasonable, [and] not merely wrong.” In this case, Alvarez still wins the habeas action despite these stringent standards.