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Media Alerts - Fourth Circuit: Merzbacher v. Shearin, et al.
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February 22, 2013
  Fourth Circuit: Merzbacher v. Shearin, et al.
Headline: Convicted Rapist Denied Post-Conviction Relief Due to Lack of Credibility

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure; Federal Habeas

Issue(s) Presented: Whether a federal habeas court must find "clear and convincing" record evidence before it may reject a state court's factual conclusions.

Brief Summary: After Merzbacher was granted habeas relief in the District Court for the District of Maryland, the state appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The Fourth Circuit held that the lower court's disagreement with the state court's factual findings was not based on "clear and convincing evidence" of error. Rather, in the Fourth Circuit's view, the disagreement was grounded in the district court's decision to place different weight on parts of evidentiary record. Without clear evidence of error, federal courts cannot overturn state court factual findings on habeas petitions.

Extended Summary: John Merzbacher was tried and convicted of child rape and related crimes in May 1995. When the prosecution of Merzbacher began, he faced charges involving one girl. As the prosecution progressed, however, Merzbacher eventually faced charges for an additional fourteen children. Prior to the start of Merzbacher's trial on these charges, prosecutors and defense counsel met in chambers to discuss a plea deal. Specifically, the parties discussed a deal that would allow Merzbacher to plead guilty to the initial rape charge in exchange for a ten-year sentence. If accepted, the remaining charges would be dismissed. The deal was never finalized and trial commenced. Merzbacher was ultimately convicted and sentenced to four life sentences and one ten-year sentence, all running concurrently.

After trial, Merzbacher sought post-conviction relief claiming that neither of his two attorneys notified him of the plea offer. Merzbacher maintained that if they had, he would have accepted it "most graciously." The state court held hearings, where Merzbacher's attorneys admitted their failure to communicate the offer to their client. Likewise, the prosecutor and trial judge testified to the "discussion" held in chambers. They confirmed that the guilty plea had been discussed (although never formalized), but insisted that defense counsel gave the impression that Merzbacher was not interested in pleading guilty to any charge.

After the post-conviction court denied Merzbacher's petition for post-conviction relief, the state appellate court remanded the case for a determination of whether Merzbacher had been advised of the plea. The post-conviction court again denied relief, inferring from the totality of the circumstances that Merzbacher and his attorney discussed the plea offer but rejected it.

Merzbacher sought relief in the United States District Court and was granted a writ of habeas corpus with an order to the State to offer Merzbacher his original plea offer. The State appealed, and the Fourth Circuit inquired into whether Merzbacher suffered ineffective assistance of counsel. A claim of ineffectiveness encompasses two elements: 1) whether counsel's performance was deficient, and 2) whether there is a reasonably probability that the deficiency prejudiced the defense. In applying these requirements to the case before it, the Fourth Circuit noted that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") requires a federal habeas court to affirm a state court's factual findings unless there is clear and convincing evidence of error.

Inquiring into whether Merzbacher received deficient representation, the Fourth Circuit first noted that there had been unrebutted testimony from Merzbacher and his attorneys that Merzbacher was never told of the ten-year offer. Turning to the next prong of the analysis, the Fourth Circuit, however, did not find that the state court was unreasonable in concluding that no prejudice resulted from counsel's deficient performance. As the court explained, Merzbacher had the burden of showing, among other things, that he would have accepted the plea offer had it been communicated to him. The state court found that Merzbacher had not demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would have accepted the plea since he maintained his innocence throughout the beginning stages of his proceedings, thought that he stood a good chance of prevailing at his trial, and did not show any indication that he would admit guilt. In light of this evidence, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the federal court was not permitted, pursuant to AEDPA, to overturn the state court decision over a mere disagreement. Rather to overturn the decision, the federal court must find that the state court acted unreasonably. The Fourth Circuit found the state court's findings reasonable based on the fact that there were several unsettled issues with the terms of the plea agreement itself, and there was "some evidence" presented to the state court to support the inference that Merzbacher would not have accepted the plea offer if it had been presented. Under the deferential standard imposed by the AEDPA, the Fourth Circuit reversed the federal district court's judgment and denied Merzbacher habeas relief.

To read the full opinion, please visit:

Panel: Judges Motz, Duncan, and Floyd

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/25/13

Docket Number: No. 10-7118

Decided: 01/25/13

Case Alert Author: Samantha Spencer

Counsel: ARGUED: Edward John Kelley, OFFICE OF THE ATTOR- NEY GENERAL OF MARYLAND, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants. Henry Mark Stichel, GOHN, HANKEY & STICHEL, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Douglas F. Gansler, Attorney General of Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants.

Author of Opinion: Motz, J.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 02/22/2013 12:16 PM     4th Circuit  

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