Thursday, June 23, 2011

Death penalty habeas results in COA grants

Richardson v. Branker, No. 5:08-HC-2163-BO, 2011 WL 1792571 (E.D.N.C. May 10, 2011):

The matter was before the Court on Petitioner's application for a certificate of appealability ("COA").

Petitioner's claims.  Petitioner sought a COA on four issues:  (1) the state presented false and misleading evidence in violation of Napue, (2) the state withheld evidence in violation of Brady, (3) Petitioner received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorneys did not move to suppress his statements to the police, and (4) Petition is mentally retarded and therefore cannot be executed in violation of Atkins.

The Court grants a COA regarding issues 2 and 4 (the Brady claim and the Atkins claim).  In order to better understand these claims, one must look to the case's history.

Procedural history.  Petitioner was found guilty of a heinous murder of a store clerk.  The jury found that Petitioner committed the murder while he was under the influence of a mental or emotional disturbance.  The state denied habeas relief.  In his federal petition for habeas relief, Petitioner raised the above four claims.

District Court's analysis.  In January, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled on Petitioner's federal habeas petition.  Richardson v. Branker, No. 5:08-HC-2163-BO, 2011 WL 52357 (E.D.N.C. Jan. 6, 2011).  Of the five grounds discussed, the federal habeas Court granted habeas relief on one claim.  That claim was denominated Claim III in the opinion and is denominated Claim (5) below.

(1) Napue claim:  Procedurally Defaulted.  The Napue claim was the concomitant argument of the Brady claim.  That is, because the state withheld exculpatory evidence, then the fact that they went forward with the other evidence meant that they intentionally presented false evidence.  The Court ruled that the fact that Petitioner exhausted his Brady claim did not exhaust his Napue argument because the two are legally and factually distinct.  Petitioner first attempted to raise the Napue argument in his petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.  When a claim is first presented in a request for discretionary review, the claim has not been adequately presented to the state courts to satisfy the exhaustion requirement.

(2) Brady claim:  No prejudice.  Regarding the Brady claim, Petitioner argued that the state unconstitutionally withheld evidence placing Hedgepeth---the person Petitioner alleged committed the murder---at the scene of the crime.  The evidence included sketches of a shoe print in a piece of sheetrock found at the scene.  The sheetrock was destroyed by the police department prior to trial by mistake when the evidence storage room was being cleaned out.  Petitioner asserts the shoe print was consistent with shoes worn by Hedgepeth.  Second, petitioner argues the state improperly withheld statements made by Atkinson indicating she had seen Hedgepeth with Petitioner on the night of the crimes.

The state habeas court held that the Brady argument was procedurally barred because Petitioner was in a position to raise the argument on appeal, but failed to do so.  The state habeas court also held the argument failed on the merits.

The federal habeas Court, however, still heard the claim because the respondent didn't argue that the claim was procedurally defaulted - it only acknowledged that the state habeas court found the claim procedurally defaulted.  Because exhaustion is an affirmative defense, the federal habeas Court decided to address the issue on the merits.  (In the alternative, the federal habeas Court finds that Petitioner did not have access to the evidence until after post-conviction proceedings, and therefore the state's bar was not an independent and adequate basis to support procedural default.  Furthermore, the federal habeas Court held that it was not clear if the state habeas court addressed both Brady claims, because the denial was in summary fashion.)

The federal habeas Court reviewed the evidence and determined that even if the sheetrock had been preserved, it would not have prejudiced the outcome.  The evidenced showed that a second shoeprint was found which was not Petitioner's.  It was not conclusive whose shoe the print belonged to.  The federal habeas Court also determined that the statements made by Atkinson did not provide a reasonable probability of a different result.

(3) Miranda claim:  Procedurally defaulted.  Petitioner argues that, because of his low intelligence, the waiver of his Miranda rights was not "knowing."  The state habeas court found the Miranda claim procedurally barred because it could have been raised on direct appeal but was not.  The basis for the procedural bar was an independent and adequate state ground for relief

(4)  Atkins claim:  Meritless.  Petitioner argues that he is mentally retarded and therefore his death sentence violates the Eighth Amendment.  The state habeas court denied the claim on the merits.  The federal habeas court reviewed the record and determined that Petitioner could not succeed in showing significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning.

(5) Statutory mitigating circumstance:  Habeas granted.  Although not at issue regarding the COA, the Court did grant habeas relief regarding Petitioner's appellate counsel's failure to argue on direct appeal that Petitioner was prejudiced when the trial court failed to submit a statutuory mitigating circumstance relating to petitioner's mental age.

Conclusion.  The Petitioner requested a COA on the remaining grounds.  In its summary order, the Court granted a COA on the Brady and Atkins claims.

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