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Media Alerts - Ballinger v. Prelesnik - Sixth Circuit
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March 20, 2013
  Ballinger v. Prelesnik - Sixth Circuit
2013-02-14

Headline: Sixth Circuit Reverses Grant of Habeas Corpus Petition.

Area of Law: Writs of Habeas Corpus; Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Issues Presented: (1) Did the district court err by conducting an evidentiary hearing on an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim after state courts had decided the issue? (2) Did the state courts violate clearly established federal law when they rejected the defendant's ineffective-assistance claim?

Brief Summary: A jury convicted the defendant on two counts of first-degree murder. The defendant claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, arguing that his trial attorney failed to interview and call a crucial alibi witness. The trial court rejected his ineffective-assistance claim, and the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed. The defendant then petitioned in federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court granted an evidentiary hearing to consider the ineffective-assistance claim and found for the defendant. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the district court should have dismissed the defendant's petition without an evidentiary hearing.

Significance: The Sixth Circuit's opinion clarifies that district courts should not hold evidentiary hearings to decide ineffective-assistance claims when a state court has already decided that issue on the merits.

Extended Summary: Before trial, the defendant's attorney submitted a tardy witness list that included the names of potential alibi witnesses. The prosecutor objected to the late submission, and the defendant's attorney withdrew it, announcing that the defendant did not intend to raise an alibi defense after all. At trial, two eyewitnesses testified that they saw the defendant shoot the victims.

The jury convicted the defendant on two counts of first-degree murder. The defendant then hired a new attorney and moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. He argued that his trial lawyer failed to interview a crucial alibi witness before trial. In support of this claim, he attached the affidavit of a woman named Cunningham, who stated that she was with the defendant when the shootings occurred. No "Cunningham" had appeared on the defendant's pretrial witness list, but the defendant claimed that Cunningham had been listed under a different last name and that, therefore, his trial attorney knew of her and could have interviewed her before trial.

The trial court denied the defendant's motion and sentenced him to life in prison. The defendant appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which likewise rejected his ineffective-assistance claim. The Michigan Supreme Court denied his application for leave to appeal.

Later, the defendant petitioned in federal court for a writ of habeas corpus. The district court granted an evidentiary hearing on the ineffective-assistance claim, finding that the state court's denial of an evidentiary hearing was unreasonable. The evidentiary hearing revealed that the defendant's trial attorney had not interviewed the potential alibi witness named Cunningham and that the defendant's trial attorney had never contacted her. Cunningham also testified that she was, in fact, the same person who had been listed (under her former name) on the defendant's pretrial witness list. Based on this evidence - plus the trial attorney's disbarment soon after the trial - the district court held that the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Sixth Circuit reversed.

The Sixth Circuit first held that the district court erred by conducting an evidentiary hearing. It observed that "district courts are precluded from conducting evidentiary hearings to supplement existing state court records when a state court has issued a decision on the merits." Thus, the district court should not have granted an evidentiary hearing after the Michigan Court of Appeals had resolved the defendant's ineffective-assistance claim on the merits.

The Sixth Circuit next turned to the merits of the defendant's ineffective-assistance claim. Limiting its review to "the record that was before the state court," it held that the Michigan courts were not unreasonable in finding that the trial attorney's performance was constitutionally sufficient. The defendant failed to prove that his trial attorney was aware of the alibi witness named Cunningham. And the state-court record contained no evidence establishing that she was the same witness who had been listed, under a different name, on the defendant's pretrial witness list. Finally, even if the attorney's performance was below acceptable professional standards, the defendant could not show prejudice given that two eyewitnesses unequivocally identified him as the shooter.

To read the full opinion, please go to: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...13a0057p-06.pdf


Panel: Circuit Judges Siler, Sole, and Sutton

Argument: November 27, 2012

Date of Issued Opinion: March 4, 2013

Docket Number: 12-1357

Decided: Reversed.

Case Alert Author: Chris Jennings

Counsel: Argued:Mark G. Sands, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY
GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellant. Sanford A. Schulman, SCHULMAN &
ASSOCIATES, P.C., Detroit, Michigan, for Appellee. On Brief:Mark G. Sands,
OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for
Appellant. Sanford A. Schulman, SCHULMAN & ASSOCIATES, P.C., Detroit,
Michigan, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Siler

Media Alerts Supervisor: Professor Mark Cooney

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 03/20/2013 02:32 PM     6th Circuit  

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