Great Ruling on False Light Arguments from Sixth Circuit

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) definitely complicated the pursuit of habeas corpus relief. The incarcerated can no longer write successive petitions and a defendant’s appeal must contain all claims. Furthermore, the only successful habeas claims are the ones where convictions are transparently contrary to “clearly established federal law” or an “unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254. Supported by the United States Department of Justice, Vanderbilt University Law School released a 2007 study, “Habeas Litigation in U.S. District Courts: An Empirical Study of Habeas Corpus Cases Filed by State Prisoners Under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.” Its conclusion was as follows: There are slower completion times per case and fewer petitions granted on average.

Then the Sixth Circuit issued its October 30, 2013, Peoples v Lafler opinion. A three-member panel criticized a Michigan prosecutor for a false inference argument and deemed that it was prosecutorial misconduct. The court ruled that AEDPA precluded them from reviewing the case, yet the issue that ultimately was considered dicta in the appellate opinion may nudge open AEDPA’s heavy door. In Peoples v. Lafler, two witnesses told a similar story that was the only evidence connecting Jesse Peoples to the murder of
Shannon Clark, a Detroit drug dealer fatally shot outside his home. However, the evidence was “known false testimony” and “trial counsel did not use the only hard evidence at his disposal to prove that the two witnesses not only lied, but told the same lie,” the appellate court said in its opinion.

Three months after Clark’s death, police arrested Jesse Peoples, Demetrious Powell, and Cornelious Harris after the men led police on a chase in a stolen Jaguar that ultimately crashed. Police found on the driver’s side floorboard the pistol that killed Clark. Also, a police officer witnessing the crash writes a report identifying Harris as the driver. Peoples, while awaiting trial, mailed defense counsel a copy of the police report, indictment, and criminal docket sheet showing that Harris was the Jag’s driver. However, they are ignored and Harris and Powell are able to spin a similar story about Peoples’ involvement.

The Sixth Circuit partially reversed the decision relating to Peoples’ ineffective assistance of counsel claim and remanded the case to the district court to conditionally grant a habeas corpus writ, giving the State of Michigan 90 days to retry Peoples or release him from custody. Quoting the opinion, “ ‘[i]t is particularly unreasonable to fail to track down readily available and likely useful evidence that a client himself asks his counsel to obtain.’ Couch v. Booker, 632 F.3d 241, 247 (6th Cir. 2011). Where, as here, counsel fails to use a police report, indictments, and criminal docket sheets the client himself obtained that would have proven counsel’s own defense theory, the failure is, a fortiori, unreasonable to the point of constitutional deficiency. It certainly is not, by any objective measure, sound trial strategy.”

The appellate court’s AEDPA deference delved into discussions of a “modified form of AEDPA deference,” in which the court focuses on the result rather than the reasoning of the state court. Hawkins v. Coyle, 547 F.3d 540, 546 (6th Cir. 2008). The question then, according to the court, is whether there was a reasonable likelihood that the trial’s outcome would have been different if the known false testimony had never been presented. The court concluded that there was other testimony connecting him to the murder so there was no reasonable likelihood that the outcome would have been acquittal or conviction on a lesser charge. Keep in mind, the court decided in this case to “REMAND the case to the district court with instructions to conditionally GRANT a writ of habeas corpus.”