Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Second Circuit takes back favorable habeas ruling

Two years ago, the Second Circuit granted a habeas corpus petition filed by a prisoner whose conviction was tainted because an undercover detective testified against him in a closed courtroom. That state court proceeding violated the Sixth Amendment which protects the right to a public trial. In the wake of a recent Supreme Court ruling which narrows the basis upon which you can win a habeas petition, however, the Court of Appeals has taken that ruling back.

The case is Rodriguez v. Miller, decided on August 6. Rodriquez was convicted of a drug offense on the testimony of an undercover officer who claimed he was still work in Rodriguez's neighborhood and did not want to blow his cover. The state court judge eventually allowed some of Rodriguez's relatives to attend the trial, but only if they sat behind a screen in the courtroom. Rodriguez told his family not to bother.

In 2006, ruling in Rodriguez's favor, the Court of Appeals held that the "the state court had failed to make the 'particularized inquiry' necessary to exclude Rodriguez’s family members. In particular, we questioned the district court’s reliance—without more—on the geographical proximity of the Undercover’s territory and the residences of Rodriguez’s family members to support the courtroom closure." Ridriguez won his habeas claim.

But there was a problem. The Supreme Court then issued a habeas ruling in Carey v. Musladin, 127 S. Ct. 649 (2006), holding that a criminal defendant was not denied his right to a fair trial because his victim’s family had been permitted to wear buttons bearing a photograph of the victim in the courtroom gallery throughout the proceedings. The Court held that "in contrast to warring decisions among the federal circuits, the effect on a defendant’s fair-trial rights” of “spectator conduct . . . is an open question in our jurisprudence.” The significance of this is that a state criminal court does not unreasonably apply clearly estabished federal law if the Supreme Court has not resolved that issue in the past. Since the effect of spectator conduct was never previously decided by the Supreme Court, the prisoner in Musladin had no habeas claim even if, with 20/20 hindsight, he did not receive a fair trial.

That reasoning kills the habeas claim in Rodriguez v. Miller, and the Second Circuit now takes back its favorable habeas ruling for this prisoner. Under the habeas law as revised in the mid-1990's, the only rulings relevant in determining whether a criminal defendant received an unconstitutional trial are Supreme Court rulings. The Supreme Court's ruling in Musladin confirms this, and the Court of Appeals now confirms that its own rulings are not relevant to whether a state court denied someone a fair trial. As the trial court in Rodriguez did not unreasonably apply clearly established Supreme Court decisions, he is not entitled to habeas relief, and he is a convict once again.

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