Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Court of Appeals takes away habeas victory

You will not find a more depressing statement of facts than this case, in which an intoxicated man shot and either injured or killed members of his girlfriend's family after his girlfriend told him he was drinking too much. It all happened at the man's birthday party. Of course, the jury convicted him of murder. And, of course, while in jail, the defendant blamed his lawyer, filing a habeas petition claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. A respected federal judge granted that motion, ruling that the defendant received ineffective assistance. The Court of Appeals disagrees, killing off the habeas petition.

The case is Waiters v. Lee, decided on May 22. Waiters' blood-alcohol content was sky-high. His trial counsel argued that Waiters was so intoxicated that he could not form the necessary intent to kill and injure his victims. Legally, this is a legitimate defense. You not only have to prove the defendant committed the unlawful act, but that he intended to do so. Diminished capacity means no intent, or at least diminished intent to cause harm.

Waiters brought the habeas petition pro se, arguing that his trial lawyer was ineffective because he did not call an expert witness to tell the jury that his intoxication was a mitigating factor in the shootings. Ineffective assistance claims can be won post-trial, but those victories are rare. You have to show counsel's performance fell below accepted standards and that that poor performance prejudiced the defense, or caused him to lose. Under federal habeas standards, you also have to show the state courts -- which get first crack on the ineffective assistance claim -- interpreted the Constitution unreasonably. Misinterpreting the Constitution by itself is not enough to win a habeas petition. The state court's interpretation has to be unreasonable. So the state courts can get it a little wrong. This is the state's rights theory of habeas corpus jurisprudence.

Writing for a 2-1 majority, Judge Livingston says Waiters cannot satisfy his burden in showing the state court had unreasonably denied his habeas petition. (Judge Jacobs dissents and would uphold the positive habeas ruling). The Court assumes for the sake of argument that Waiters' lawyer had unreasonably failed to hire an expert. It then says that, even so, that failure did not make a difference in the outcome of the criminal trial. The Court notes that that jury already knew that Waiters had been drinking all day and that he was intoxicated when he fired his gun at the victims. The jury also knew that his intoxication "had not rendered him incapable of purposeful action," including testimony that he went after his girlfriend's son because he was trying to break up the argument. The Court concludes, "we are not persuaded that, had the jury also heard from a medical expert and reviewed the full set of medical records, there is a sufficiently strong probability that it would have found differently such that the state trial court's determination to the contrary was unreasonable. While such evidence could have been proffered, it would not likely have made a difference in light of the strong, specific testimonial evidence indicating that Waiters formed the requisite intent to commit his crimes."

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