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Comments on Current Events In Criminal Law from the Federal Criminal Courts in Texas

October 08, 2007

INEFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL:THE FAILURE TO INVESTIGATE

Criminal Defense Lawyers Must Diligently Investigate Facts Supporting Possible Defenses, Witnesses

The right to effective assistance of counsel is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. See, McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 n. 14 (1970). This constitutional guarantee attaches to both retained and appointed counsel. See, Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U.S. 335, 344-45 (1980).

In 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court established a two-prong test to be used by the lower courts in evaluating ineffective assistance claims: a criminal defendant must prove that counsel’s performance was “deficient” because it fell below an objective standard of reasonableness; and that this deficient performance so prejudiced the defendant that the resulting conviction or death sentence is unreliable or fundamentally unfair. See, Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down an ineffective assistance of counsel ruling involving an attorney’s failure to investigate, interview and subpoena a witness. See, Harrison v. Quarterman, ___ F.3d ____ 2007 WL 2306918, C.A. 5 (Tex.), August 14, 2007, No. 04-11188 [hereinafter cited as “Findlaw”].

THE “SCOTTY LAYNE HARRISON” CASE

Harrison was convicted by a Texas in December 2001 for the offense of sexual assault and sentenced to a mandatory life sentence because the jury determined that he had a previous sexual assault conviction. See, Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 12.42(c)(2)(A)(i) and (B)(ii).

The prosecution presented three witnesses against Harrison: the victim, Christina Jones; a nurse from the Baylor University Medical Center who testified there was some indication of a rape; and Charles Weise, the step-father of the victim, who testified that he found the victim lying on the couch in her apartment several days after the alleged attack. See, Findlaw at 2-4.

The State’s theory of the case, established exclusively through the victim’s testimony, was that the victim had been friends with Harrison for about five months and that they had previously engaged in consensual sexual intercourse on one occasion while the victim was using drugs. The victim testified that Harrison came to her apartment in the evening hours on July 17, 2000, stating that he had “broken up” with his girlfriend and needed to take a shower. The victim gave him permission to shower, saying she was going to lie down on the couch because “she was not feeling well due to the herniated disks in her neck and back.” Id.

The victim testified further that she fell asleep and awoke with Harrison standing at the end of the couch wearing only his boxer shorts. She stated that Harrison forced her to engage in sexual intercourse during which she heard a “pop” in her neck. After the attack Harrison left the victim’s apartment. Because of the “neck and back pain,” the victim remained on the couch several days before she was found by her stepfather who came to check on her after having not heard from her for several days. Id.

Harrison, through counsel, presented the defense that the victim had engaged in consensual “three-way sex” with him and another man named Tony West. Findlaw at 3. In support of this defense, trial counsel asked the victim on cross-examination whether she had engaged in consensual three-way sex with Harrison and West. She responded that West was not at her apartment that night and she had not engaged in consensual three-way sex with the two men. Id.

Trial counsel pressed his defense. He asked the victim if she had ever told “Patricia Herron” – an acquaintance and drug supplier to the victim – “that she had consensual three-way sex with Harrison and West which got rough and out-of-hand. Jones denied ever telling Herron about such an encounter, and stated she never had consensual three-way sex with Harrison and West.” Id.

Trial counsel then called three witnesses to support his “consensual three-way sex” defense. The first witness, Darlene Waddle, testified that she had known Harrison for about ten years, 5 ½ of which they had lived together. She told the jury about a conversation she had with the victim in 2000 during which the victim stated she was “obsessed with Harrison.” Findlaw at 4. Waddle added that the victim became angry and refused to speak to her after she learned that Waddle had lived with Harrison. Id. Waddle admitted that she had a prior drug conviction and a misdemeanor theft conviction. Id.

Trial counsel’s second witness was Patricia Herron, who was in federal custody awaiting sentencing for a drug conviction. Herron testified that she had known the victim several years and had sold drugs to her. She told the jury that the victim had told her that she [the victim] had injured her back while having rough three-way sex with Harrison and another man she identified at “Brian Fincher.” Id. On cross, Herron admitted that she had not been at the victim’s apartment on July 17, 2000 and could not remember when the conversation with the victim took place. Findlaw at 5.

Trial counsel’s final witness was Dana Hobbs who testified that she had known Harrison for nearly fourteen years. She worked at a local “game room” and offered testimony about the victim’s back condition prior to the alleged assault. She said she had observed the victim “cleaning up, doing odd jobs, and running errands.” Id.

After properly exhausting state court remedies in 2004, Harrison filed a federal petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254 alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. Seven months later, August 2004, a U.S. magistrate judge recommended that the writ application be denied, and over Harrison’s objection to those recommendations, the district court denied habeas relief. In January 2006 the Fifth Circuit granted Harrison’s pro se application for a certificate of appealability on the ineffective assistance claim.

A. The ADEPA Standard of Review

The Fifth Circuit began its analysis with the observation that Harrison’s appeal was governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. See, Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 336 (1997). Citing Riddle v. Cockrell, 288 F.3d 713, 716 (5th Cir. 2002), the Fifth Circuit said that under ADEPA it could not “grant habeas relief on a claim that a state court has adjudicated on the merits ‘unless the adjudication of the claim … resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States’.” Findlaw at 6. See also: Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405-06 (2000).

A state court decision is “contrary to” clearly established federal law if “it relies on legal rules that directly conflicts with prior holdings of the Supreme Court or if it reaches a different conclusion than the Supreme Court on materially indistinguishable facts.” See, Busby v. Dretke, 359 F.3d 708, 713 (5th Cir. 2004); Findlaw at 6. The Fifth Circuit said it would “presume” that the state court findings of fact were correct, forcing Harrison to carry “the burden of rebutting the presumption of correctness by clear and convincing evidence.” Id. See also: § 2254(e)(1).

B. The Strickland Deficiency Test

Harrison’s ineffective assistance claim rested exclusively on the argument that trial counsel was unreasonably incompetent because he did not interview Tony West before the trial or call him as a witness at trial. Harrison alleged that West would have substantiated his “consensual three-way sex” defense, and that this potential witness had made it known that he was available and prepared to testify for Harrison. Findlaw at 8. Harrison stated in his pleadings that he told trial counsel in October and November of 2000, verbally and in writing, to contact West, informing counsel that the witness was incarcerated in the Dallas County Jail. Findlaw at 9. Trial counsel did not interview West or subpoena the witness for trial. Id.

Against the backdrop of its own longstanding case law that ineffectiveness may be found when an attorney does not contact and/or subpoena a potentially critical witness, the Fifth Circuit addressed Harrison’s witness claim:

If Harrison’s characterization of West’s potential testimony is accurate and West was willing to so testify, then Harrison has a strong argument that trial counsel’s failure to interview West, a potential eyewitness, and call him as a witness at trial fell below the standard of a reasonably competent attorney. It is beyond cavil that “an attorney must engage in a reasonable amount of pretrial investigation and [,] at a minimum, interview potential witnesses and make an independent investigation of the facts and circumstances in the case.” Bryant v. Scott, 28 F.3d 1411, 1415 (5th Cir. 1994) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). In Bryant, this court held that trial counsel’s “failure to interview eyewitnesses to the crime was constitutionally deficient representation.” Id., at 1418. In this case, trial counsel’s failure to interview West, a potential eyewitness, raises serious concerns about whether counsel provided constitutionally adequate representation. See Soffar v. Dretke, 368 F.3d 441, 473-74 (5th Cir. 2004) (holding that counsel’s failure to interview the only known eyewitness to the crime charged amounted to deficient performance under Strickland); see also Anderson v. Johnson, 338 F.3d 382, 392 (5th Cir. 2003) (holding that counsel’s failure to investigate an eyewitness constituted constitutionally deficient representation). Findlaw at 9-10.

The district court rejected Harrison’s claim because West’s testimony (assuming he would have testified as Harrison represented) would have been cumulative of Herron’s testimony. The district court also concluded that trial counsel may have made a strategic choice not to call West because of the “credibility issues at play” and because it “would not have advanced the defense to have presented the testimony of a person then confined at the Dallas County Jail.” Findlaw at 10.

The Fifth Circuit found “clear error” in those findings of fact and conclusions of law, saying:

Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, West’s potential testimony would not have been cumulative of Herron’s testimony. The defense’s theory was that Jones injured her back while having consensual, albeit rough, three-way sex with Harrison and West on July 17, 2000. The defense called Herron in an attempt to impeach Jones’s testimony in which she stated that she never told Herron that she had three-way sex with Harrison and West. Herron testified that Jones told her that Jones had rough three-way sex with Harrison and Brian Fincher. Herron could not recall when the conversation took place and she conceded that she had no idea what happened at Jones’s apartment on the night of July 17, 2000.

Admittedly, there is some overlap between Herron’s testimony and West’s proposed testimony, but Herron’s impeachment testimony is no substitute for West’s proposed eyewitness testimony. Herron could not corroborate the defense’s theory that West was the other man, for she testified Fincher was the third participant. Furthermore, Herron’s testimony suggested that the three-way sex may not have been consensual. [Herron testified that the victim said she, “did some drugs and had a threesome and it got out of control and … that she had asked it to stop but it didn’t stop and that she snapped her spinal cord.”] Another important difference between Herron’s testimony and West’s proposed testimony is that Herron, unlike West, could not testify that Jones and Harrison had consensual sex on the night of July 17, 2000. West’s proposed testimony cannot be dismissed as cumulative because the difference between his testimony and Herron’s testimony goes to the heart of whether a sexual assault occurred on July 17, 2000, as the state charged. See Washington v. Smith, 219 F.3d 620, 633-34 (7th Cir. 2000) (holding that additional alibi witness testimony was not cumulative where the alibi witness who did not testify had no direct knowledge of the defendant’s whereabouts at the time of the robbery); see also Stewart v. Wolfenbarger, 468 F.3d 338, 359 (6th Cir. 2007) (finding additional alibi testimony was not cumulative where it “would have added a great deal of substance and credibility” to the defendant’s alibi defense). Findlaw at 11-12.

The Fifth Circuit was as “equally unpersuaded” by the district court’s finding that trial counsel “may” have made a strategic choice not to interview and call West at trial. The appeals court turned to the Strickland holding that “strategic choices made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options are virtually unchallengeable; and strategic choices made after less than complete investigation are reasonable precisely to the extent that reasonable professional judgments support the limitations on investigation.” 466 U.S. at 690-01.

While the Fifth Circuit has ruled that a witness’s lack of credibility may indeed be a protected strategic choice not to subpoena that witness, “character flaws” alone does not relieve an attorney of the responsibility to investigate the witness. See, Anderson v. Johnson, supra, 338 F.3d at 392. The failure of Harrison’s trial counsel to speak to West certainly left him “ill-equipped to assess his credibility or persuasiveness as a witness.” Id. See also: Griffin v. Warden, 970 F.2d 1355, 1358 (4th Cir. 1992) [holding that trial counsel did not make a strategic choice not to call a witness when counsel did not interview that witness].

Accepting Harrison’s claim as true, the Fifth Circuit held that under Anderson trial counsel did not make a legitimate strategic choice when he did not call West to testify. Findlaw at 13. The appeals court added:

… [T]he district court’s supposition that trial counsel did not have West testify at trial because trial counsel “may well have determined that in light of all the credibility issues at play it would not have advanced the defense to have presented the testimony of a person then confined at the Dallas County Jail” is speculation unsupported by the record. Trial counsel called two witnesses with blemished criminal records during the trial. Waddle had a prior felony conviction for possession of methamphetamine and a prior misdemeanor theft conviction, and Herron was awaiting sentencing after having pled guilty to federal drug conspiracy charges. Given the fact that trial counsel called two witnesses with criminal histories, one of whom was in jail awaiting sentencing, the district court erred in speculating that trial counsel excluded West from the witness stand because he was incarcerated in the Dallas County Jail.” Id.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that under its Bryant, Soffar and Anderson decisions, Harrison had made a “strong argument” that his trial counsel deficient performance “fell below the standard of a reasonably competent attorney” required by Strickland. Findlaw at 14.

C. The Strickland Prejudice Test

Deficient performance is not enough to warrant reversal under Strickland. A defendant must demonstrate that the deficient performance prejudiced his/her defense. Inherent in the prejudice component is a prerequisite showing that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” 466 U.S. at 694. See also: Soffar v. Dretke, supra, 368 F.3d at 478 [“reasonable probability need not be proof by a preponderance that the result would have been different”].

The Fifth Circuit then applied the Strickland prejudice component to Harrison’s case:

Assuming Harrison’s allegations are true, he has a strong argument that trial counsel’s failure to interview West and have West testify at trial prejudiced his defense. Though there was some physical evidence indicating that Jones had been sexually assaulted, the prosecution and trial counsel acknowledged that the case turned on witness testimony. Indeed, during closing argument, trial counsel stressed that “the main issue in this case is to judge the credibility of the witnesses.” Trial counsel also reiterated the defense’s theory-of-the-case, namely, that Jones had consensual three-way sex with Harrison and another man. During the closing argument, trial counsel did not identify the other man as West, as he had done during his cross-examination of Jones.

Trial counsel’s decision not to interview West and not to have him testify undermined Harrison’s defense. The jury heard that Jones had consensual three-way sex with Harrison and West. Trial counsel’s failure to have West testify allowed the jury to draw a negative inference against Harrison’s defense based on West’s absence. Findlaw at 14-15.

The prosecution exploited trial counsel’s dereliction in its rebuttal to trial counsel’s closing argument by saying: “If there was three-way sex, you can bet your life Tony West would have been here because that is who they believe. That is their story, remember? … Where is Tony West? … Where is Tony West? Where is Tony West to corroborate their story? Can’t do it. Can’t corroborate it.”

The Fifth Circuit elected to follow the lead of the Sixth and Seventh Circuit who, in Stewart and Washington, found that the prejudice component of Strickland is satisfied when a defendant makes a showing that trial counsel failed to call a witness central to establishing the defense’s theory-of-the-case and allowed the jury to draw a negative inference from that witness’s absence. Id., 468 F.3d at 360; 219 F.3d at 634. The Fifth Circuit reasoned that given the role “credibility and witness testimony” played in Harrison’s case, “there exists a ‘reasonable probability’ that, but for counsel’s errors, the jury might have reached a different verdict.” Id.

D. Remand Proceedings

The Fifth Circuit ruled that while the district court had “erroneously applied Strickland and its progeny,” the appeals court was not prepared to grant Harrison’s § 2254 habeas petition. The appeals court cited United States v. Cockrell in support of the proposition that “complaints of uncalled witnesses are not favored …” Id., 720 F.2d 1423, 1427 (5th Cir. 1983). The court also pointed to previous decisions where it held that unsupported claims by a defendant that his trial counsel was ineffective by not calling a particular witness are viewed with “great caution” and the failure to support such a claim is ordinarily “fatal to an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.” See, Sayre v. Anderson, 238 F.3d 631, 638 (5th Cir. 2001); Alexander v. McCotter, 775 F.2d 595, 602 (5th Cir. 1985). The Fifth Circuit stated:

In this case, the only evidence of what West would have testified to comes from Harrison. Furthermore, Harrison has not provided an affidavit from West indicating that West would have been willing to testify at Harrison’s trial. Harrison contends that his failure to present either the state courts or the district court with an affidavit from West should not defeat his ineffective assistance of counsel claim because the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (“TDCJ”) has prevented him from corresponding with West, who is also incarcerated in the Texas prison system. Harrison urges this court to appoint him an attorney to interview West and obtain the necessary affidavit or to order the TDCJ to allow him to write to West. Findlaw at 16-17.

The State argued that Harrison is now barred under Williams v. Taylor from producing the West affidavit because he did not present such an affidavit in the state courts. The State made much of the fact that Harrison only attempted to correspond with West some ten months after his conviction became final and one month after he filed his state court habeas petition; and that he did not try to obtain an affidavit from West before he [Harrison] was transferred to the TDCJ.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(e)(2) places evidentiary restrictions in the federal district court when a state prisoner fails to fully develop the “factual basis of a claim in state court.” See, Williams v. Taylor, supra, 529 U.S. at 424. The Williams court, however, made it clear that § 2254(e)(2) does not apply unless the “failure to develop the factual basis of a claim” is due to a “lack of diligence, or some fault, attributable to the prisoner or the prisoner’s counsel.” Id., at 432.

The Fifth Circuit said that “if the TDCJ has prevented Harrison from corresponding with West, then Harrison’s failure to obtain an affidavit from West is not attributable to him and § 2254(e)(2) does not apply in this case.” Id. Further, the appeals court was not impressed with the State’s contention that Harrison should have exercised more diligence to secure the West affidavit before he was transferred to the custody of the TDCJ. The court said that “the record discloses that Harrison filed his state habeas petition on September 11, 2003, and that he attempted to correspond with West on October 13, 2003. Harrison therefore attempted to contact West while his state habeas petition was still pending, for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals did not deny his application until February 4, 2004.” Findlaw at 18.

The Fifth Circuit concluded that the State apparently wanted the court “to read § 2254(e)(2)’s diligence requirement as mandating that a habeas petitioner act ‘as soon as possible,’ but that is not the law. [Williams v. Taylor] at 435 (‘Diligence for purposes of the opening clause {of § 2254(e)(2) depends upon whether the petitioner made a reasonable attempt, in light of the information available at the time, to investigate and pursue claims in state court …’}.” Id

The Fifth Circuit, however, noted that the State had advanced a “potentially meritorious argument” that Harrison had not exercised “due diligence in developing the factual basis of his ineffective assistance claim in the state courts. Quarterman contends that Harrison has not shown that he followed the TDCJ’s two-step grievance procedure for challenging a denial of permission to correspond with West. If Harrison did not follow or exhaust the TDCJ’s grievance procedure, then arguably he is at fault for not obtaining West’s affidavit and § 2254(e)(2) applies. The district court did not address this issue, and we decline to do so in this first instance.” Findlaw at 19.

The appeals court instructed the district court on remand to resolve the issue of whether Harrison followed the two-step grievance procedure. The court concluded that “if the TDCJ has prevented Harrison from contacting West even though Harrison has followed all procedures for corresponding with another inmate, then the district court should allow Harrison to obtain West’s affidavit. Additionally, the district court should determine the extent to which trial counsel attempted to contact or interview West, for trial counsel’s affidavit does not mention whether he attempted to interview West or why he decided against having West testify at the trial.” Findlaw at 19-20.

The significance of the Harrison decision lies in the consistent rulings of the Fifth Circuit, and its sister circuits, that a reasonable investigation must be conducted before a strategic decision is made to either call or not call a particular witness.

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