New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

Articles Posted in Post-Conviction Relief

It has been said that the defense attorney is frequently the most ignorant person in the room.  The reason for this unflattering description is that s/he knows the least about what actually happened at the crime scene.  The prosecutor has an army of investigators tasked with developing as much information as possible concerning the alleged underlying offenses.  The defendant knows what happened because s/he was presumably present when the relevant events transpired.  Defense counsel is the last person to arrive on the scene and, more often than not, lacks the resources to conduct an investigation rivaling that of the prosecuting authority.  Thus, the defense attorney’s best (and frequently only) reliable source of information is the discovery received from the State or the Government.  Generally speaking, the prosecutor must turn over anything that may be exculpatory or used to obtain a conviction.  The failure to do so may violate the principles set forth in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  Specifically, Brady held, among other things, that the Due Process clause is violated if the Government withholds evidence that is favorable to the defense and material to a defendant’s guilt or punishment.  In Turner, the United States Supreme Court rejected a Brady claim because both prongs of this test were not satisfied.

The seven defendants in this case, including Christopher Turner (“Turner”), were indicted, tried and convicted for the kidnapping, robbery and murder of Catherine Fuller (“Fuller”).  The centerpiece of the Government’s case was that Fuller was attacked by a large group of individuals.  Their direct appeals were rejected.  In post-conviction proceedings, the petitioners alleged that the Government withheld seven pieces of evidence that were both favorable to them and material to their guilt insofar as the missing items could have been used to undermine the Government’s “group” theory and suggest an alternative theory, which was that Fuller was attacked by, at most, one or two individuals.

Significantly, the Government did not contest the claim that the withheld items were favorable to the defense, but did challenge the conclusion that these items were material.  As to this point, the Court found that evidence is “material” when it is reasonably probable that its disclosure would have changed the result of the proceeding.  Reasonable probability of a different result occurs where the fact that the evidence was missing undermines the confidence in the trial’s outcome.  To reach these conclusions, the missing evidence must be evaluated in the context of the entire record. Continue reading

In Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), and Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. _____, the United States Supreme Court held, among other things, that states cannot execute someone who is mentally disabled.  The Court also left to the states the task of determining whether a death row inmate has a mental disability that could prevent their execution.  Moore v. Texas, 581 U.S. _____ (2017), decided on March 28, 2017, clarifies this aspect of Atkins and Hall.  Briefly, in Moore, the Court held that state courts must utilize established diagnostic criteria when ascertaining whether a death row inmate has a mental disability.  In reaffirming its prior holdings that executing someone with a mental disability is unconstitutional, the Court noted that even mild mental or intellectual disabilities are disabilities, and states cannot execute anyone within the entire category of intellectually disabled offenders.

In 1980, Moore and two others robbed a supermarket in Houston.  At the supermarket, Moore and the others approached a courtesy booth that held two employees.  One of them realized that a robbery was taking place and started to scream.  Moore shot her in the head and killed her.  He fled, was arrested after 10 days, charged with capital murder, tried and sentenced to death by a jury.  Moore’s appeals spanned the next three decades.  In 2014, after a two-day hearing, a state habeas court concluded that Moore had an intellectual disability.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“CCA”), the final arbiter of habeas petitions in that state, rejected this conclusion and held its own hearing.    The CCA applied the criteria set forth in a 2004 Texas case, Ex Parte Briseno, which are as follows:

  • Did those who knew the defendant well during his developmental stages (family, friends, educators, employers, and other authorities), believe he was mentally retarded, and act in accordance with that assessment;
  • Has the defendant formulated and carried out plans, or is their conduct impulsive;
  • Does the defendant’s conduct indicate that they are a “leader” or “follower”;
  • Are the defendant’s responses to external stimuli rational and appropriate;
  • Are the defendant’s responses to oral or written questions on point, or does s/he wander from one subject to the next;
  • Can the defendant lie effectively; and
  • Did the underlying offense require planning, forethought and complex execution?

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Many defendants convicted in State court proceedings will, after exhausting their State level appeals and post-conviction applications, seek habeas relief in Federal court.  Generally speaking, the process focuses upon violations of Federal constitutional law in the underlying State proceedings, and is commenced by filing a habeas petition and supporting papers in the appropriate Federal district court within the applicable limitations period.  Habeas is often the final opportunity to attack a State court conviction.  These applications frequently, but do not always, stem from allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel.  For many years, the US Supreme Court has issued decisions restricting the availability of habeas relief to a State defendant.  The latest case to do so is White v. Wheeler, No. 14-1372, decided on December 14, 2015.

A capital jury convicted defendant Wheeler of killing two individuals.  The habeas petition arose from a claim that a judge improperly struck a prospective juror for cause during the selection process.  The prosecutor moved to strike the juror for cause because his responses during voir dire indicated that he was not absolutely certain he could realistically consider the death penalty.  The defense opposed the motion, arguing that the prospective juror’s responses indicated that he could consider all penalty options, regardless of any reservations he may have had about the death penalty.  The trial judge struck the juror for cause because his inconsistent answers suggested that he could not consider the death penalty as part of the entire range of sentencing options.

The district court dismissed the petition, but the Sixth Circuit reversed and granted habeas relief as to defendant’s sentence.  That Court found that excusing the prospective juror violated the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution.  The US Supreme Court reversed, and its basis for doing so is clearly, unmistakably and repeatedly stated throughout the opinion. Continue reading