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December 3, 2015
  Watkins v. Rubenstein, et al. -- Fourth Circuit
Habeas Relief Reversed After Court Finds No Brady Violation

Areas of Law: Criminal Procedure; Habeas

Issue Presented: Whether the district court assumed new facts and failed to give due deference to the state court's findings of fact when it ruled that the prosecutor committed a Brady violation which warranted a grant of habeas relief.

Brief Summary: In a split decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of a writ of habeas corpus to Steven Watkins. The petition for a writ of habeas corpus was before the district court after Watkins was denied relief in West Virginia state court. The Fourth Circuit reversed, finding the district court improperly found new facts and did not give adequate deference to the state court's rulings.

Extended Summary: In 2007, Steven Watkins was convicted of attempted robbery in the second degree and received a sentence of five to eighteen years. Whether the victim was placed in fear at the time of the attempted robbery, a required element of the offense was hotly contested at trial. Watkins claimed that after the trial concluded the prosecutor told Watkin's trial counsel the victim was not in fear at the time of the attempted robbery. Watkins brought a petition for writ of habeas corpus at the state court level claiming the prosecutor knew the victim was not afraid at the time of trial and this violated Brady v. Maryland. The prosecutor admitted to having at least two conversations with the victim regarding the fear element and what the prosecution needed to prove to sustain a conviction. The prosecutor, however, denied the victim claimed to have never been afraid. Instead, the prosecutor suggested the victim had some hesitation about admitting fear of another man.

In order to grant habeas relief based on a Brady violation, the defense must show the prosecution had information that was favorable to the defense prior to trial; that this information was material to the defense; and was requested prior to trial.
The state court concluded that Watkins' trial attorney was told after the trial that the victim was not afraid during the attempted robbery. The state court also found the prosecutor and victim discussed the fear element but that there was no impropriety and thus no Brady violation. The state court denied Watkins' petition.

When Watkins filed his petition in the District court, the court granted the petition finding that the State admitted the victim stated he was not afraid. The District court deemed the State to have been in possession of Brady material.

The Fourth Circuit reversed finding the District Court assumed facts when it reached its conclusion. The Fourth Circuit found the record showed the prosecutor made a post-trial statement to Watkins' attorney that the victim may not have been afraid, but this could not be imputed to mean that the prosecutor had knowledge of the fact prior to trial. Moreover, the court held that the conversations which did take place were "no more than routine trial preparation."

In a concurring opinion, Chief Judge Traxler criticized the evidence presented by Watkins. The Chief Judge underscored that the only witness presented by Watkins was his original trial counsel, whose recollection of the conversation which took place with the prosecutor was vague. Watkins failed to call either the victim or the prosecutor. The Chief Judge accused Watkins of misrepresenting the strength of this testimony to the District Court.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Motz wrote that the District Court correctly concluded that the state court unreasonably applied Brady v. Maryland to the facts at hand. Judge Motz believed that the state court's opinion found that the prosecution had knowledge of the lack of fear of the victim prior to trial. Moreover, Judge Motz wrote that the only possible conclusion to draw from the state court's findings was that the prosecutor was the individual to tell Watkins' trial attorney about the statement. Judge Motz criticized the state for its failure to put the prosecutor on the stand to deny the allegations.

To read the full opinion click here.

Panel: Chief Judge Traxler, Judges Niemeyer and Motz

Argument Date: 01/29/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 09/23/2015

Docket Number: 14-6513

Decided: Reversed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Kathleen DeNobile, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Elbert Lin, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF WEST VIRGINIA, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellants. Michael Brian Hissam, BAILEY & GLASSER, LLP, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Patrick Morrisey, Attorney General, Christopher S. Dodrill, Assistant Attorney General, OFFICE OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF WEST VIRGINIA, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellants.

Author of Opinion: Judge Niemeyer

Concurring Opinion: Chief Judge Traxler

Dissenting Opinion: Judge Motz

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 12/03/2015 03:20 PM     4th Circuit  

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