Friday, March 27, 2009

Superior Court's rejection of IAC claim involved unreasonable application of Strickland & petitioner’s proffer entitled him to evidentiary hearing

In Siehl v. Grace, No. 07-1568, March 25, 2009, the Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s denial of Siehl’s § 2254 habeas petition and remanded for an evidentiary hearing.
Siehl was charged with homicide in state court. The prosecution’s case was based entirely on a fingerprint and bloodstain evidence recovered from the crime scene (the victim’s bathroom). A forensic expert was appointed to assist defense counsel and prepared a preliminary report which, among other things, indicated that the fingerprint was the defendant’s. The report did not, however, make any findings as to the bloodstain evidence and indicated the fingerprint could have been made before the crime occurred. The expert prepared no other reports and was not called to testify. At trial the Commonwealth rested on the fingerprint and the bloodstain evidence. Instead of calling an expert to challenge and/or rebut the Commonwealth’s case, the defense stipulated the print was Siehl’s and then presented an alibi evidence. Siehl was subsequently convicted of first degree murder.

On direct appeal, Siehl obtained new counsel who, in turn, failed to raise a claim of trial counsel’s ineffectiveness. The conviction was affirmed. Then, on PCRA, Siehl yet again obtained new counsel who raised both trial and appellate counsel’s ineffectiveness and requested an evidentiary hearing. The request was denied and the claim of trial counsel’s ineffectiveness deemed waived. The PCRA Court did, however, grant an evidentiary hearing on separate unrelated issues where Siehl attempted to present testimony from highly regarded forensic expert, Leon MacDonell. The Court refused to hear testimony from Professor MacDonnell but permitted an offer of proof via affidavit which opined that the fingerprint was not Siehl’s, that a Commonwealth’s fingerprint deterioration theory was incorrect, commented that the blood stain evidence came from the same source, and that the forensic expert retained by trial counsel was not qualified in this field. The Court denied relief. An appeal was taken to the Superior Court who affirmed. In doing so, the Court addressed the merits of trial counsel’s ineffectiveness and held that because Siehl did not deny the fingerprint was his, trial counsel had a reasonable basis for stipulating the fingerprint was his and that Siehl suffered no prejudice as a result. The Court also held the Siehl could not demonstrate prejudice for the failure to call a qualified forensic expert to assist at trial.

Siehl then instituted § 2254 proceedings. The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation which recommended the denial of Siehl’s ineffectiveness claim and recommended the denial of a certificate of appealability (COA). The Third Circuit disagreed and granted a COA with respect to three issues involving ineffective assistance of counsel.
In their opinion, the Court set out to make two determinations: 1) whether the PA Superior Court’s rejection of Siehl’s IAC claims involved an unreasonable application of Strickland, and 2) if so, whether Siehl’s proffer of evidence entitled him to an evidentiary hearing. The Court ruled in the affirmative.

Specifically, as to the first determination, the Court held that "given the Commonwealth’s expected testimony" regarding their "core evidence" (i.e. the fingerprint evidence), defense counsel’s decision to stipulate that the fingerprint was Siehl’s "effectively admitted that he was the murderer." Therefore, the PA Superior Court’s application of Strickland and ultimate denial of the ineffectiveness claim thereon was not objectively reasonable.

As to the second determination, whether Siehl was entitled to an evidentiary hearing, the Court held that there was an insufficient record "upon which to evaluate trial counsel’s performance" yet that it must decide whether Siehl had "shown enough" to give him the opportunity to expand the record. This determination involves two issues: (1) whether AEDPA bars an evidentiary hearing under these circumstances; and (2) "if not, whether Siehl had proffered sufficient evidence to demonstrate that ‘a new hearing would have the potential to advance petitioner’s claim.’"

The Court determined as to the first issue that Siehl had diligently sought and was denied an evidentiary hearing on the relevant issues during PCRA proceedings. Consequently, the Court held this was a sufficient showing by Siehl because he "may be able to show" no waiver where appellant counsel was ineffective for failing to raise ineffectiveness of trial counsel on direct appeal.

As to the second issue, the Court also determined Siehl made a sufficient showing. Specifically, the Court held that he made a prima facie showing to entitle him to an evidentiary hearing where, as here, he was unable to establish the necessary records in the state courts through no fault of his own. That the MacDonnell report itself, if credited, would be enough to suggest he’d received ineffective assistance of counsel. The Court noted, that based on the current record, the strategic choices of counsel appear to have been made without a full investigation. Additionally, the Court held that Siehl made a prima facie showing that would enable him to demonstrate a reasonable probability that, but for the ineffectiveness of trial counsel, the result of his trial would have been different. That given the opportunity to undermine the Commonwealth’s scientific evidence would only bolster Siehl’s alibi defense. Reversed and remanded for an evidentiary hearing.

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