Skip to main content

Section 2254: Counsel Ineffective For Failing to Suppress In-Court Identification

Thomas v. Varner, No. 04-2856 (3d Cir. Nov. 4, 2005). In this § 2254 proceeding, the Third Circuit affirmed the district court decision that counsel was ineffective for failing to object to an in-court identification.

The defendant was convicted of second degree murder during the robbery of a speakeasy. His conviction was based on the testimony of two identification witnesses. One witness (was was named Young) knew the defendant and originally failed to identify him, made several inconsistent statements, testified he was coerced by the police, testified he feared arrest if he did not name someone, had charges pending against him when he testified, but did identify the defendant. The second witness, Fuller, was shown more than 750 pictures of black males and did not make an identification. Later, he was shown 10-12 pictures. The detective pulled two and told him to take a "real good" look at them. Fuller testified he would not have made the identification absent the detective’s suggestions. However, Fuller could not make an identification at a pre-trial hearing. At trial, though, he identified the defendant and defense counsel failed to object.

In post-conviction proceedings, the defendant alleged his counsel was ineffective for failing to suppress the identification Fuller made at trial. The defendant received no hearing on his state post-conviction papers. He filed a habeas petition in U.S. District Court. The District Court held an evidentiary hearing and granted the petition.

Affirming, the Third Circuit held that the defendant was entitled to a hearing. He had requested, but was not given, a hearing in state court to develop the record regarding counsel’s decision not to object to Fuller’s in-court identification. The Third Circuit held that the defendant was not at fault for failing to develop in state court the factual basis for his claim.

On the merits, the Court held that counsel performed deficiently when he failed to object to the identification. Counsel testified he believed he was not permitted to object or move to suppress the trial identification once it had been made. However, Pennsylvania court rules permit a motion to suppress after trial starts if "the opportunity did not previously exist, or the interests of justice otherwise require." The Third Circuit concluded that counsel’s representation was not objectively reasonable.

Addressing prejudice, the Third Circuit analyzed whether such a motion was likely to be granted. It agreed with the district court that the photo lineup procedure was unduly suggestive. The Court further held that the totality of the circumstances showed that the identification was unreliable. While Fuller had the opportunity to see the shooter, he was only facing the shooter for a short time. Fuller was playing chess when the shooter entered the speakeasy and then Fuller tried to flee. While his initial description of the shooter was accurate, he then disavowed his line up identification at the pre-trial hearing. Finally, a significant amount of time had passed between the shooting and the trial identification. The Court found a substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification.

The Court found the Strickland prejudice standard was met. Absent Fuller’s identification, the prosecution was left with Young’s identification, whose testimony was very questionable. Counsel’s failure undermined the reliability of the verdict.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Double Jeopardy Claim Falls Short on Deferential Habeas Review

In the habeas matter of Wilkerson v. Superintendent Fayette SCI, Nos. 15-1598 & 15-2673, the Third Circuit defers to a state court determination that the defendant’s conviction of both an attempted murder count and an aggravated assault count based on the same altercation did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.
The evidence was that during the altercation, the defendant both struck the victim in the head with a gun and shot him in the chest. The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld consecutive sentences on the theory that the evidence was sufficient to permit a jury to find the striking to support one count and the shooting the other. Despite the jury instructions’ and verdict form’s failure to require each of these discrete findings, the Third Circuit holds that the state court’s reasoning was sound enough to withstand deferential review the AEDPA’s “clearly established Federal law” limitation. “[W]here the jury instructions were merely ambiguous and did not foreclose the jury…

Jurisdiction for revocation of supervised release where revocation also imposed in other District on concurrent case and local Probation Office was not supervising releasee

In United States v. Johnson, 2017 WL 2819210 (June 30, 2017), http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/163268p.pdf, the Third Circuit rejected two jurisdictional challenges to a revocation proceeding in one District where the defendant was also concurrently supervised and revoked in another District. For separate federal offenses in the Middle District of Florida and Virgin Islands, Johnson was serving two concurrent terms of supervised release. He was living in and supervised by the Middle District of Florida and had no contact with the Probation Office in the Virgin Islands. He committed a new offense in Florida and the Middle District revoked his supervised release. Johnson challenged revocation proceedings in the Virgin Islands. The Third Circuit found that the Virgin Islands maintained jurisdiction. It joined the Second and Fifth Circuits in finding that concurrent terms of supervised release do not merge: the term of supervised release in the Virgin Islands was not constructively d…

Mailing Threatening Communications is a Crime of Violence and a Judicial Proposal for Reform of the Categorical Approach

In United States v. Chapman, __F.3d__, No. 16-1810, 2017 WL 3319287 (3d Cir. Aug. 4, 2017), the Third Circuit held that mailing a letter containing any threat to injure the recipient or another person in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 876(c) qualifies as a crime of violence for the purposes of the career offender enhancements of the Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1(a).The Court acknowledged in a footnote that the analysis is the same for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 871, threats against the president.


The Court began its analysis by reviewing the definition of “crime of violence” and specifically the meaning of the words “use” and “physical force.”Quoting United States v. Castleman, 134 S. Ct. 1405 (2014), and Tran v. Gonzales, 414 F.3d 464 (3d Cir. 2005), it defined “use” as “the intentional employment of force, generally to obtain some end,” which conveys the notion that the thing used “has become the user’s instrument.” The Court confirmed the definition of “physical force” as “force ca…