Wednesday, June 20, 2007

6th Circuit grants habeas relief under Strickland

Earlier this week in Ramonez v. Berghuis, No. 06-1852, the 6th Circuit reversed the district court's denial of habeas relief, holding that trial counsel's failure to investigate and call three witnesses to the crime constituted ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland.

Petitioner was convicted Ramonez of third-degree home invasion, assault with intent to do great bodily harm and aggravated stalking. The conviction came out of an altercation between Ramonez and his ex-girlfriend and mother of his two children. The victim testified at trial that Ramonez forced his way into the house and choked the victim inside the house once he gained entrance. Ramonez took the stand in his own defense, alleging that he was invited into the house and while things became violent, he never choked the victim.

Counsel's ineffective assistance arose out of the following facts, developed at trial and during Ramonez's state habeas petition:

After the prosecution rested, Ramonez and Moore brought before the judge their disagreement as to Moore’s decision not to call any witnesses on Ramonez’s behalf and Ramonez’s intention to testify despite Moore’s advice. Ramonez wanted to call Charles, Rene and Hackett to testify to his story of what happened that day. Ramonez complained that he had told Moore about those witnesses months earlier, but Moore had failed to communicate with them. Moore stated that it was his strategic decision not to call any witnesses, and the judge decided he was disinclined to interfere with counsel’s judgment

[At the state hearing] Moore testified that he was aware of Rene, Charles and Hackett prior to trial, but he never made contact with them. Moore defended his decision not to call them based on what he characterized as his trial strategy to focus on the action inside Fox’s home. He believed that the three witnesses could not testify to that action because they were never inside the house. Moore’s plan had been to rely on cross-examination to point out discrepancies in Fox’s story and discredit her testimony. Even so, Moore did attempt to reach Charles (but only Charles) just three or four days before trial, but he did not succeed in speaking with him--the two simply exchanged phone messages.

After exhausting his state appeals, Ramonez petitioned the district court for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied. In reversing that decision, the 6th Circuit held that Ramonez satisfied both prongs of the Strickland analysis, and that the state court's contrary conclusion was an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law. The main analysis is worth quoting at length:

In its effort to apply that standard, the district court stated that while it would have found Moore’s performance deficient due to his failure even to speak with the three witnesses before trial, it could not say that the Michigan Court of Appeals’ contrary conclusion was an unreasonable application of Strickland, thus making it unchallengeable under AEDPA. In so finding the district court considered it within reason for the Michigan court to conclude, based on the information available to Moore before trial and in conformity with his chosen trial strategy, that Moore made a reasonable professional call not to interview the witnesses and not to call them at trial.

Even given the required deference to the Michigan Court of Appeals, the district court’s restraint in those terms does not withstand analysis. As the district court’s opinion makes clear, the state court focused largely on the notion that Moore’s decision not to call the three witnesses was rooted in what it perceived to be a reasonable trial strategy--one of focusing on undermining Fox’s credibility as to what happened between her and Ramonez inside the house--and because the three witnesses were never inside the house, Moore thought that they could add little to that effort. But that belief was grounded on a fatally flawed foundation, for if Moore had only engaged in the minimal--and essential--step of interviewing the witnesses, he would have learned that they could testify as to what took place in the house, and that their testimony would have supported Ramonez’s version of events.

That being so, the state court ignored the central teaching of Strickland, as reaffirmed by Wiggins, 539 U.S. at 522-23, that the investigation leading to the choice of a so-called trial strategy must itself have been reasonably conducted lest the “strategic” choice erected upon it rest on a rotten foundation.

That is the heart of the opinion, although it goes on to discuss the prejudice standard as well. It is worth reading the whole thing. The opinion was unanimous, a rarity in the 6th Circuit in habeas cases. Seems like a solid decision, especially because the facts raise a question of quasi-innocence compared to the actual conviction.