Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Christopher Raygoza v. Don Hulick, No. 05-2340 (January 25, 2007): Mr. Raygoza was convicted of murder. The Seventh Circuit granted habeas corpus relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel.

Counsel presented an alibi defense, but did very little to develop it. According to numerous potential witnesses, Raygoza at the time of the murder had been at a birthday party for his mother at her house, which was many miles from the scene of the crime. But counsel called only one witness, Raygoza’s girlfriend, whom he interviewed for the first time on the day he called her as a witness. Counsel knew that Raygoza's mother and siblings were also potential witnesses, but did not probe enough to know that the occasion for the family’s being at the house was the mother’s birthday party and did not know about other attendees at the party. He also knew that a family friend, a lawyer, had called the mother’s house during the crucial time period and had spoken with Raygoza, but counsel did not call this witness or obtain corroborating phone records, since he chose to concentrate on impeaching eye witness identifications of the state’s witnesses.

The Court held that it was deficient performance not to interview and call these additional witnesses. The attorney’s belief that alibi was generally a weak defense could not make his decision a strategic decision immune to review. With so many potential witnesses, the weakness of any one witness or even each of them was not a good reason to present only one of them. He had a duty to uncover all the potential witnesses.

After the conviction, but before the sentencing, Raygoza obtained new counsel and filed a motion for a new trial based on the attorney’s ineffectiveness. The trial judge, denying the motion, commented that even with these additional witnesses, he would have nonetheless convicted. (The trial was a bench trial.) The Court held that since effect on the outcome is an objective inquiry, the state judge missed the mark by focusing on what he would have done. It further noted that, in making his finding of guilt, the state judge had emphasized that Raygoza had called only one witness in support of the defense.

The opinion has two interesting facets. First, the Court once again signaled that it recognizes the inherent fallibility of eye witness identifications. Hence, the importance of properly developing the alibi defense. Second, in discussing the distance between the murder scene and the mother’s house, the Court referred to Mapquest. It is unclear whether the Mapquest calculation was part of the record or whether the Court, as it has in the past, searched the internet for additional information.

Finally, the opinion, in a continuing break from the tradition of allowing the attorneys to remain anonymous, clearly identified defense counsel by name.