Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Court of Appeals grants habeas petition in child sex abuse case

Prison law libraries must be busy places. Inmates are looking to get out of jail, and a good habeas corpus petition can get you there. Most habeas petitions are denied. This one failed at the district court, but the Court of Appeals says the inmate makes a good point about the admissibility of his confession.

The case is Dearstyne v. Mazzuca, a summary order decided on February 13. Dearstyne was convicted of child sexual abuse and served more than 20 years in jail. He is now under parole supervision. That he is out of jail does not mean he cannot pursue his habeas petition.

Dearstyne evidently said something during police questioning that sealed his fate. He argues that the state court trial judge did not comply with clearly-established Supreme Court authority in resolving his claim at trial that his confession was not voluntary. In 1964, the Supreme Court said that "a defendant objecting to the admission of a confession is entitled to a fair hearing in which both the underlying factual issues and the voluntariness of his confession are actually and reliably determined." The rule in that case, Jackson v. Denno, is that "a jury is not to hear a confession unless and until the trial judge has determined that it was freely and voluntarily given."

Prior to his criminal trial, Dearstyne asked the trial court to throw out his confession. The trial court held a hearing on the issue and denied the motion to suppress, finding that "a sharp question of fact has arisen." He left the issue of whether Dearstyne's confession was voluntary for the jury.

Will a jury fairly decide that a confession was coerced or involuntarily given? Would the jury care? Many people do not understand how an innocent man can confess to a horrible crime. True, convictions are overturned over involuntary confessions, but my guess is the average juror will think that no one in his right mind would admit to child sexual abuse. Which is why the trial courts have to decide the issue of voluntariness. In this case, the trial court got it wrong. The case is sent back to the state courts for a do-over on that issue.

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