Thursday, May 14, 2015

Comstock v. Humphries, No. 14-15311 (Owens with Berzon and Bybee) --- The Ninth Circuit reversed the denial of a Nevada state prisoner's federal habeas petition, holding that the state courts' rejection of the petitioner's Brady claim was contrary to clearly established federal law.

The petitioner was convicted of possessing stolen property, namely a championship ring awarded to a former college wrestler.  His defense at trial was that he found the ring, not that it had been stolen.  Before sentencing, the wrestler wrote a letter to the trial judge expressing doubt that the ring had been stolen at all; he said that he might simply have lost the ring outside his apartment after taking it off while he was repairing his motorcycle.  The petitioner and his ex-girlfriend had been living in the same apartment complex at the time.  A police detective brought the missing ring to the wrestler's attention when he discovered that it had been pawned at a local pawn shop; the petitioner's name was on the pawn ticket, and the detective was monitoring the pawn shop for theft-related activity.  In his sentencing letter to the judge, the wrestler said he told both the detective and the prosecutor that he might simply have lost the ring, and lamented that this information was never brought up at trial.

The jury convicted the petitioner of possessing stolen property received by means of larceny; as a habitual offender, the petitioner received a 10-25 year sentence.  Based on the wrestler's statement in his sentencing letter, he moved for a new trial, complaining that the prosecution's failure to disclose his statements before trial amounted to a Brady violation.  The trial court denied this motion.  The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed in a one-sentence order, declining to hold an evidentiary hearing on the subject of what the wrestler told the police, reasoning that there was no new evidence that was undisclosed.  The federal habeas court denied relief as well.

The court first held that the wrestler's statement was favorable to the petitioner, because it would have impeached the wrestler's own trial testimony that he never misplaced or lost the ring outside of his apartment.  The statement had been suppressed, and the Nevada Supreme Court's decision was not entitled to AEDPA deference because it made no findings on that question (such that review was de novo).  Nor did the state ever argue that it did not suppress the statement; it consistently argued that it was unaware of the statement and defended against the Brady claim on materiality grounds.  And the court held that the statement was material.  The Nevada Supreme Court's characterization of the statement as "mere speculation" ignored its "exculpatory value in light of the testimony and the prosecutor's closing argument."  (The trial prosecutor had argued that the ring had been stolen because the wrestler felt it to have great sentimental value.)  If the petitioner had known about the statement, he could have asked specific, pointed questions on cross-examination about what the wrestler did with the ring.  "Because the State suppressed [the wrestler's] recollection of these particular, relevant facts, the defense was empty-handed during... cross-examination."  Moreover, there was no direct evidence of the petitioner's guilt, so a meaningful opportunity to cross-examine the prosecution's star witness might have changed the outcome of the trial.

Congratulations to Las Vegas AFPD Ryan Norwood.

The decision is here:


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